Race and Protest: A Confession from Global Sports Cultures

I hadn’t intended to write about this, but recent events have made feel compelled to do so.  First, the public displays of solidarity by athletes—from the St. Louis Rams on November 30 to Knox College women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith and from Derrick Rose to Reggie Bush and others—in support of nationwide protests against racism and police violence have brought these issues closer to the scholarly field where I do most of my work.  Second, and in view of this, I felt it important to raise these issues and discuss them in my Global Sports Cultures course at Michigan this past week.  Our course topic this week was “Watching,” as part of a semester-ending unit on “Ethics,” and so it seemed entirely appropriate to me, even urgently necessary, to tie this topic to current events.  I’m no expert in these matters, and there certainly is no lack of superbly informed and eloquent writing on the topic.  Perhaps more than anything I need to get this off my chest.  And perhaps, if I do so reasonably well, it may be of use to others.

In deciding to end my course with a unit on “Ethics,” comprising the topics of “Watching” and “Storytelling,” my aim was to get students thinking of their own involvement in global sports cultures.  And this is how I framed the unit in my lecture last Monday.  Where much of the course up to this point sought to furnish students with conceptual lenses through which to grasp some portion of the vast and complex fabric of global sports cultures, I wanted in the last two weeks to get them thinking critically about their own participation as producers of this fabric, whether as spectators or as storytellers, whether in their daily life conversations about sports or more formally.  So on Monday, I outlined the understanding of ethics I’ve derived from many years of studying and teaching Spinoza’s Ethics, for me still an unsurpassed—if extraordinarily difficult to grasp—vision of what an ethical life looks like and then suggested some ways that this might inform their spectatorship.  Each topic in global sports cultures is paired with a “case study.” This past week’s case study was to be the WNBA and there were some more mainstream works designed to get students thinking about the ethics of watching (or not watching, as the case might be) the WNBA.

Then I saw the video of Ariyana Smith stepping out of line during the national anthem prior to her Knox College women’s hoops game against Fontbonne University in St. Louis (actually the day before the Rams more widely publicized protest).  I saw her calmly walk over to face the big American flag on the wall, and fall to her knees with her hands up.  I saw her teammates glance over with curiosity or anxiety or who knows what.  Then I saw her “die”, collapsing to the ground as the anthem continued.  I saw coaches and officials and perhaps administrators walk over.  I don’t know what they said to her as they bent over her prostrate body.  She lay there for 4 and 1/2 minutes (symbolic, as everyone should know by now, of the 4 1/2 hours that Mike Brown’s body lay dead in the street after Darren Wilson killed him), as the anthem ended, and starting lineups were announced.  She lay there as players, coaches and officials conferred, wondering, perhaps whether they could or should attempt to begin the game.  And then I saw her, just as calmly as before, get to her feet, walk the length of the sideline, then the baseline, and then out the door of the gym.

And I was floored.  I admit that I’m not an especially courageous person so that my courage-meter might be a bit skewed, and I’d certainly witnessed images of actions in the streets that had struck me as spectacularly courageous over the past week.  But, perhaps because of my own experience as an athlete, I was impressed by the courage it took for young Ms. Smith to step out of line in the middle of the most highly ritualized and normative moment of an American sporting event, and to do so all by herself.  I’m not sure I’d have the courage to do so.  And so I thought: this, this is what my students and I must talk about, in relation to watching, and to the ethics of watching.

So I began class on Wednesday by telling them that I was going to show them a video, and that as they watched, I wanted them to become aware of what they were feeling and also of what their minds began, seemingly automatically, to do with their feelings.  I wanted them to notice how feelings began to slip into thought, perhaps judgment and opinion and from there concatenate into chains of silent argument to support those judgments and opinions.  They nodded.  I played the video.  It goes for some 6 minutes or more, a somewhat shaky handheld video taken with a smartphone.  Of course, there’s not a lot happening and Ms. Smith, most of the time, is a barely discernible dark smudge on the ground, beneath the flag, beyond the far corner of the baseline.

Having turned on the lights, I asked them if anybody had seen it before (nobody had) and whether they knew what it was in reference to (somebody said it seemed related to what the Rams had done on the previous Sunday).  I explained that it was related and the circumstances of the event and the protest.  Then I asked them what they felt.  I don’t want publicly to put any of my individual students on the spot, so I’ll just summarize what seemed to be the consensus among those who spoke.

First, they felt uneasiness or awkwardness.  This made sense to me, there’s something painful about watching the video to me too: I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out, it just goes on and on, and a kind of tension builds between the prolonged immobilization of Ms. Smith’s body and the cheerful normalcy of the pregame rituals taking place in the foreground.  There is the passivity of the videographer, echoed in my own passivity: watching.  And then there is the curious lack of response from the sparse members of the crowd.  But this actually wasn’t what made my students uneasy or awkward.  Their feelings instead stemmed from her having done this during the national anthem.  My students felt this was disrespectful.  Many of them athletes themselves, they recalled that during the national anthem at their own events they often think of American servicemen and women deployed abroad.  They felt that Ms. Smith’s protest was disrespectful to these individuals; that, at best, she should have timed it differently and, at worst, it was rude.

I simply nodded, asking questions to get them to articulate their feelings and thoughts, at no point dissenting or offering a contrary opinion.  Encouraged perhaps, students began to venture opinions about the Ferguson case and the nationwide protests more generally:  “it really shouldn’t be made into a race thing,” “it’s really being blown out of proportion,” “protestors shouldn’t be looting and burning things.”  I want to emphasize that not everyone in class spoke, not even the majority of the 24 students, so I’m not sure what the silent members of class felt or thought.  But this is what was said.  As the comments built upon one another, I grew increasingly uncomfortable, hemmed in my own assurances that I wanted them to speak freely without fear of judgment and paralyzed by my own surprised judgments about what was being said.  As time drew to a close, I’m not sure, but I think I made some very general comments trying to encourage empathy.  I walked out of the room feeling angry, mostly at myself for failing to respond in what seemed like a crucial educational, political, and ethical opportunity.

Airing my feelings of failure on Twitter and then later in the evening with my wife (who has been facing similar challenges in her own college classroom, but handles them, in my view, infinitely more authentically and gracefully), I realized that I’d made a mistake, one I’d have to correct when class convened again on Friday.  I realized that I’d erred as a professor by granting them, but depriving myself of, the opportunity to be fully human in the classroom.  It’s important to me as a professor to cultivate in the classroom an environment in which students can come to know themselves better and learn to think independently about the issues we discuss.  Sometimes, as on Wednesday, I go too far in that direction and abdicate my responsibility to actively teach them, not what to feel or think, but how I feel and think and work through the issues we are discussing.  I worry too much that my doing so will squash their own efforts.  Or perhaps I worry that they won’t approve, or won’t like me.  I do know that the prospect of doing so always triggers a certain degree of vulnerability in me and all the more so when the issues are sensitive or controversial.  So I resolved to go in on Friday and tell them all this; all this and more; to share with them as transparently as possible all that I felt watching the video, all that I have felt and thought in the course of watching my fellow citizens take to the streets and to address specifically their two main objections: that the national anthem is not the time for protest and that it’s not about race.

So I did.  I told them that this was difficult for me.  I explained how I experienced the dilemmas of teaching.  I explained that I felt I’d failed in one of my responsibilities on Wednesday.  I told them of my admiration for Ariyana Smith.  I explained that I’d been unsettled by their reactions and had reflected on them.  That I’d reflected on the sacrifice of American servicemen and women abroad and on the purpose of that sacrifice.  I told them that I believe the purpose of the sacrifice is to protect freedom (I know that may sound naive to some, and that’s okay, I know it is only one of the purposes).  But what sort of freedom? I reminded them of the last words of the national anthem, you know, the part about “land of the free and home of the brave”?  I reminded them of the first words of the Bill of Rights, you know, the part about freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble?  And I said, I think that Ariyana Smith was in fact, whether she intended it or not, honoring the sacrifice of American military personnel by staging her protest during the national anthem, beneath the American flag: she was in fact exercising the freedoms that these men and women risk their lives to defend.  I said I think that would be a good way for my students to think about that.

Then we talked about race.  I had done some homework to prepare.  But first I told them that if what they meant by “about race” when they said “it’s not about race” was simply that Darren Wilson didn’t consciously despise black men and wasn’t thinking about his hatred for black men when he shot Michael Brown, then okay, I’d give them that possibility, grudgingly.  But I disagree strongly with that view of what it means to say it’s about race, I said.  And I think I owe you, as your professor,  my understanding of what it means to say that it is about race.  So I introduced them to the results of a few psychological studies that demonstrate how racism operates at very deep levels in our psyche, regardless of what attitudes we consciously hold and profess.  And then I explained how this racism winds up sedimented in our social practices and institutions.  I gave them facts and figures about racial disparities in unemployment rates, hunger, poverty, household income, high school drop out rates, college admissions and college graduation rates, including at the University of Michigan.

Then I moved to race and the criminal justice system.  I informed them that blacks are three times more likely than whites to be searched during a routine traffic stop, that blacks make up nearly half the US prison population, that blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, that African-Americans spend nearly as much time in prison for a drug offense (59 months) as whites do for a violent offense (61 months), that blacks make up about 31 % of the victims killed by police during arrest, and 39 % of those not attacking police when killed.  I informed them that black males are 21 times more than whites to be killed by police and that a black male is killed by police every 28 hours in this country.

This is what it means for it to be about race, I said.

I went back to Darren Wilson.  I don’t know how he feels about black men in general.  But I do know what he said he was feeling just before he fatally shot Michael Brown, because he told the grand jury:  “It looks like a demon.”  Not even “he”, I pointed out to my student, “it”: as though Mike Brown were an inanimate object or some supernatural creature, like, well, a “demon.”  If you see a demon, and you’ve got a gun, I asked my students, how do you think things are gonna end up?

This is what it means for it to be about race: that given everything I’ve just told you, and in that high-stress moment, Darren Wilson saw a demon, felt terrified, and acted on that terror in the worst possible way.

Then I told them what happens to move me. I told them about my friend Johnny, a twenty-year old African-American guy who lives nearby me and who I play hoops with a few times a week.  I told them that I can’t play ball with Johnny and then, when the game is done, just be like, “Hey J, good run. Hope you don’t get killed by a cop tonight.”

Or, “Hey J, good run, sorry you’re smart as hell, smart as any student I’ve taught at Michigan, but are working late shifts at Walmart.  Sorry your high school teachers were overworked and underpaid and that your mom was working two jobs so that you really couldn’t get the most of your high school education so that community college might be a possibility but a four year degree is a long shot and will, under the best of circumstances, require an enormous sacrifice on your part.”

Or, “Hey J, good run, sorry you got followed again by the clerk when we went to get a water at the five and dime after the game.  Sorry you don’t have a bed.”  I can’t do that because Johnny is my friend and I care about him.  And that’s also what it means for it to be about race.

Actually, Rebecca Carroll put this better than I did in a recent conversation she posted on the Guardian, but she expressed perfectly what I was trying to get across to my students when she wrote:

“Seriously, if you have black friends and black people in your life and it still doesn’t gut you when another black boy or man or person gets shot and killed, then you need to examine your friendship. If on some level you and your white peers, those racially conscious and not, don’t feel bad – like really bone-deep bad – then you’re not there yet.

Our legacy as black folks is of pain and strife; your legacy as white folks is of cultural decimation, violence and human ownership. Bummer. Who wants to look at that? And when you do, if you can, that’s gotta feel bad.”

I wish I’d had her words on Friday.

I told my kids, it’s not that I’m better than you, I don’t have a bigger heart, or anything of that sort.  I just know Johnny and Jimmy and Tim and Noland and Matt and Miles and Marcus and Sam and Devo and Ronald and Rico and Evan and Ronnie and Zak and Derrick and Glenn and Caris and Trey and Timmy and Zeke and I can’t not think of them.  Not because they are all interchangeable with Mike Brown, but because they’re not and yet are perceived to be so by the police officers who kill them, every twenty eight hours.

I don’t think, I explained, returning to those psychological studies on unconscious racial bias, that you can just reason your way out of those biases.  You can’t just be like, “well, damn, that’s wrong, so I’ll just pluck these fucked up attitudes up from out of my unconscious.”

I think your heart has to lead the way.  I think you have to know people who are different than you, and really know them: sweat with them, cry with them, laugh with them, help them up, have them help you up, listen to them and understand what their daily lives are like, that they have little brothers and sisters, and desires and loves and aversions and weird idiosyncrasies.  You have to know people and then you begin to feel, irreversibly, that they are human.

And once that genie is let out of the bottle, maybe, hopefully, there’s no going back.  Then, you’re that much less likely to perceive a demon when what is standing before you is an 18 year-old human being.  Then, you’re that much less likely to perceive disrespect or rudeness when what you are seeing is an expression of courage and an exercise of freedom borne of a profound pain and frustration that you care about.  Then, even, you’re that much less likely to stand by and watch passively as though these problems and the struggle to address them were not your own; were not our own.

I told them that they didn’t have to think what I think, but that I did expect them to consider what I’d told them openly and seriously, as with anything else I say to them.  And I thanked them for listening to me carefully and respectfully, as I had listened to them carefully and respectfully on Wednesday.  I want to close by saying, in case this suggests otherwise, that I really, really like and admire my students.  And that it is in part because I really, really like and admire them that I felt the need to challenge them by sharing with them what I feel, think, and know.


  • Well-argued and -articulated. What’s interesting about a lot of what passes for “reasoned” dialogue when discussions of race and class occur is that, rather than attempt empathy, those engaged in the discussion tend to retreat to easily defensible ideological positions. “Why do you make it about race?”, as though I’m forcing others to see me through that lens or through the lenses of the ingrained prejudices you’ve mentioned here. I would like nothing more to discuss these issues in a calm, reasonable manner. Bigotry, however, regularly resists reason; it is, at its base, irrational. This was a great read. If your course is ever offered online, I’ll sign up.

  • Your post reminds me a lot of my history professor in undergrad. I grew up in the South, so what I was taught in public schools was a horrifying version of slavery and the Civil War. As a white woman, I can only imagine now how demeaning my fellow black students must have felt. I didn’t know any better until I went to college where my history prof did much of what you’ve done. He showed us primary documents from the time, documentaries of the slave trade, engaged us in dialogue by asking thoughtful questions and teaching us to question everything, including him. In other words, I learned essential critical thinking skills and viewing things from different perspectives (especially when it comes to history and who is writing it), and to this day, I am forever extraordinarily grateful to him. So keep it up! The ripple effects may be unknown to you, but tossing that pebble in is the critical step.

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