CRAWFORD | On race (because of sports) yet again
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – If you want to stick to sports, 2018 is a bad place to try to do it. Now, probably more than at any time in my life, sports and race intersect. Daily.
This is the fifth time in five years I’ve felt compelled to write a column primarily on race. I wrote about the NFL national anthem protests, and events in Charlottesville, Va. I wrote about race when Muhammad Ali died. And I wrote about the use of the N-word as a pejorative when a Kentucky basketball player muttered it under his breath from an NCAA Final Four podium.
I don’t write about the subject often because I know enough about issues of race to know that yet another white male weighing in is not exactly what the times are calling for. But then, I have this job, and an obligation to say something. So I just try not to detract from the public good.
I know that we live in a society that is less interested in dialogue than expression. For many, the ability to listen seems to extend about as far as their last social media post. Everyone wants to make their opinions known. They want to be heard. They want to debate, but not toward any end other than victory or validation. I'm guilty of that, too.
And I know this, because a friend of mine back in my student days at the University of Louisville told me every day one troubled semester, we hear and process words differently sometimes depending on our race and our experience.
I was a resident assistant at U of L when someone began scribbling the N-word on the walls of my dormitory floor in Miller Hall. I have written here before about how that fired suspicions of everyone on the floor, how guys who had been friends began to look at each other differently until the culprit was caught and the matter resolved.
I talked about having frequent hall meetings, and going next door to the room of my friend Gerald White, who was president of the campus NAACP chapter at the time, and telling him what I proposed to say in the next meeting, only to have him reply, “You can’t say that, because all of us black guys will hear this.”
I know. Words are tricky. I brought no prejudice to the things I wanted to say. I just wanted to try to bring people together in an attempt to heal a little bit. But I also brought privilege that I didn’t quite accept, and a lack of awareness that I could not yet see, because my background was 180 degrees different from many of the guys I was talking to. Without Gerald, I would've said some things that were flat wrong, without meaning at all to do so. I learned that my good intentions weren't enough. I needed another set of eyes and ears. We all do.
It is as true for John Schnatter in the wake of his recent use of a racial slur as it is for me today and was for me back then: The first step is realizing what you don’t know. The second step is accepting what you can’t know.
All these years later, it’s the same story. As a white male, I can see that Schnatter used the N-word not in an attempt to slur people, but to make a point. He was essentially quoting someone else, the other major restaurant icon in the history of this state, a man, in fact, whose picture hangs beside the Cardinal logo on the KFC Yum! Center downtown.
But I’m a white male. To me, discussing the N-word like that makes it, in part, a relic in a museum, with a historical context that is worth considering lest we fail to learn the lessons that slavery and Jim Crow and all those times have taught us. Of course, it is much more than that.
For others, for African-Americans of all ages and backgrounds, the word is anything but an academic curiosity. It is an emotional pain. It is an insult. It is dehumanizing. I’m not the best person to describe what it means to others. Do some reading, get on Google, you can find the reactions. You can see the emotions it spawns.
Let me allow someone more qualified to speak on this.
The great poet Maya Angelou put it like this: “I look at the word, the N-word, which I really feel obliged to call it that, because it was created to divest people of their humanity. Now, when I see a bottle, come from the pharmacy, it says, P-O-I-S-O-N, and then there's skull and bones, then I know that the content of that thing — the bottle is nothing, but the content — is poison. If I pour that content into Bavarian crystal, it is still poison.”
Words are not just words. Words have power. More from Dr. Angelou: “I believe that a word is a thing. It is nonviable and audible only for the time it's there. It hangs in the air. But I believe it is a thing. I believe it goes into the upholstery and then to the rugs and into my hair, into my clothes and finally even into my body. I believe that words are things, and I live on them.”
That word, then, is poison. And as someone who tries, as best I can, not to hurt people intentionally with the things I write in this forum, it is to be treated like poison. Why would I use that word – even to make a historical point – if it might hurt, or even worse, dehumanize someone in the process?
Why use that word, knowing the power it wields? Why try to make a point, knowing that the word itself will overpower any point? My opinion – Schnatter was more interested in stating his opinion than having a dialogue. He was more interested in being provocative than being influential. He spoke recklessly because he thought he was powerful enough to do so. He wasn’t. Schnatter said he was advised by some public relations company to be that provocative. That’s no excuse. Or, even worse, it’s just an excuse.
Let me illustrate the evolution of my own thinking on this. Several years ago, I wrote a chapter of a book that never materialized on the late Louisville football player Lenny Lyles. In it was a quote from Lyles describing how he was treated during a track meet at Eastern Kentucky University. Lyles told the things the crowd shouted at him, and among those things was the N-word, which he spoke. I wrote it as he said it, because I thought it should not be sanitized, that we should experience the ugliness he faced.
Today, I’m not sure I would do that. I’m not sure that’s a good thing or not, but our society has changed, and what it will tolerate has changed. And I have changed. It is not worth making that point if I can communicate the same meaning without inflicting pain on someone.
More than ever, signaling is a significant part of our social media and corporate lives. If you’re carrying a box of Papa John’s Pizza down the street, people assume certain things about you. If you drink Starbucks, they assume certain things. If they see you at Chick Fil-A, and so forth.
Those things make me uncomfortable. Just because I don’t agree with your corporate policies, I can drink your coffee or eat your chicken. Increasingly, many Americans, especially young Americans, can’t. Maybe that’s just showing my age, but I believe making those assumptions is dangerous.
This notion that we don’t associate with anyone different, with anyone whose beliefs are different from our own, that we can’t even sit down and hear each other out, it worries me. And I think it makes matters worse. But I also acknowledge those who feel differently, and I realize that soon, there may be more of them than there are of people like me. In fact, that may already be the case. And maybe those who feel otherwise are right. Maybe they're being true to their beliefs in a way that I am not.
Regardless, in U of L’s action today, I don’t think signaling is what we saw. U of L president Neeli Bendapudi took action because she acknowledges the hurt caused by the words Schnatter used, and did not want them associated with the university. He didn't reflect the university's values. Dissent is fine. Disrespect is not.
When we are speaking, especially in public discourse, we ought not only think of ourselves. We have to think about the effect of our words on others, whether they will lift up or put down, whether they will influence or inflame.
I know, the way of the world right now is to flame away. We’d all be better off not to take that bait, and listen for just a minute, without worrying about our next hot take.
Failing to do so could cost us a lot more than money.
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