I have a t-shirt with the names Yusef, Kevin, Antron, Korey and Raymond on it. Those are the names of the Central Park Five, five young black men who were falsely accused of rape in New York City in the late 80s. I bought it after I watched “When They See Us,” a great film on Netflix that documents the entire story (If you haven’t seen it, you absolutely should).
I pulled it out to wear it today, but then I thought twice about it. I was scheduled to do a TV interview and I wasn’t sure if I should wear it on TV. How would it be perceived? Would people think I was just trying to grandstand a little bit because I was on TV by putting that particular shirt on today? Just to get some publicity and give the impression that I am concerned?
I know how I feel about it. I know I grew up with white privilege. I also went to high school in New York City, blocks away from where the attack took place, and I was in high school at the time it happened. I’ve been very conscious my entire life about race and have worked hard to learn different perspectives and support an anti-racist approach since I got out of college. Have I done enough? Nope, I haven’t. I can do more. We all can. But my thoughts and actions are certainly genuine.
So why did I think twice about wearing that t-shirt?
“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country. Is everything right with our country right now? No, it is not. We still have a long way to go. But I think what you do by standing there and showing respect to the flag with your hand over your heart, is it shows unity. It shows that we are all in this together, we can all do better and that we are all part of the solution.”
That is what Drew Brees said to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday. The context of it, of course, is regarding Colin Kaepernick taking a knee at NFL games during the national anthem. I don’t agree with Brees at all. I don’t think a peaceful protest during the national anthem is disrespecting the flag. And I do belief that the very freedom that the flag represents allows you to do just that – peacefully make a statement to protest injustice. I applaud Colin Kaepernick for having the guts to do it. It cost him his career.Brees got hammered immediately for what he said, and issued an apology pretty quickly.
At Providence College we have had a number of webinars this week within our community on racism, allyship and inclusion. Very interesting stuff that creates a lot of thought and dialogue. On one of them, the first slide that we discussed had two words on it – “Safe and Brave”. The host talked about how we were all in a safe place, and we had to be comfortable speaking freely. But it was also a difficult topic to discuss, and we had to be brave enough to speak up. Safe and brave.
While I agree completely on the importance of safety and bravery when it comes to this topic, I don’t think we are really there. Just because we say we are in a safe place and we need to be brave to have the conversation, it doesn’t mean we are there. I don’t think in America, when it comes to talking about race, that we are in a safe place where people are comfortable being brave. And I think that is a big roadblock to progress. We need to discuss how we can create safety around the conversation, so that we can be brave.
Right now if you say the wrong thing regarding racism, it can cost you everything. It can literally cost you your career. Drew Brees is lucky, he’s already a hall of fame quarterback with elite talent, so he’s not going to lose his job. He’s going to take a huge public relations hit and look bad, but he’ll survive. And take a look again at what he said. “I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.” How many people actually agree with that? I understand context matters, and the inference with the question is that Colin Kaepernick is disrespecting the flag by kneeling – a premise I think is wrong. But one that many people seem to think is true, by the way. I don’t agree. I’m not defending it. But doesn’t he have a right to say it? And if he really believes it, don’t we want to know it? Shouldn’t we want to have a conversation about it?
I’d prefer to hear Drew Brees talk about his comments. Do you really feel that Colin Kaepernick is disrespecting the flag? Do you think police brutality, especially against minorities, is a problem? What is a better way to call attention to the issue? But we can’t have that conversation because there is too much yelling and screaming. The reaction is loud, the apology comes quick, and then we don’t really talk about it.
The truth is, we don’t have a safe space in our country to have these conversations. So why would people step up and be brave? Of course we want change, we can’t look at what happened to George Floyd and think any other way. But if we are going to get better, and actually create change, we have to be able to talk about it. If I say the wrong thing in the conversation, it could easily cost me my job. Is it worth it?
For most white people who don’t feel the direct impact of racism, is it worth it to be brave and risk possibly significant ramifications for saying the wrong thing? Why did I think twice about what t-shirt I was going to wear today? I wanted to wear it because it helped express support, and show how sad and angry I am with the fact that we haven’t really found a way to change. But I didn’t, because I was concerned with how other people would react.
We need to have a conversation about safety around discussions about racism. We need to find an environment where we are all comfortable being brave. Their literally needs to be stated rules for forums, discussions and webinars on the topic making it clear that nothing that is said will leave that forum or will result in any disciplinary action. We need to be able to talk to people who have differing opinions, and hear them out without shouting them down. We need to recognize that we were all brought up differently, and the prism through which I viewed race may have been very different than my colleague in the office next to me.
We can say that we are safe, and we can say we need to be brave. But I don’t see that environment right now. We need to talk about how to get there to start making real progress.