“It’s just crazy because we’re literally fighting just to be treated like regular people.”
Speaking from first hand experience, growing up black in America starting off 2 steps behind everyone else. You have your casual racism: being told you’re “one of the good ones”, and you have your active racism: I need both hands to tell you how many times I’ve been called the N-Word in my life. You have to work twice as hard just to be considered half as good as others. You have to deal with people rebutting your experiences with, “well, but here’s the thing...”, along with when you call someone out for being racist, “I have tons of black friends, I’m not racist, what are you talking about?”
Trying to equate struggles to the plight of Black men and women in America is a losing battle, that accomplishes absolutely nothing. Black people don’t get an award for what trials and tribulations they face. Actually, they do get an award. A target on their back 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can’t drive being Black. You can’t be in your home being Black. You can’t go play in the park being Black. You can’t go on a run being Black. Are there laws saying Black people can’t do these things? No, but there are people who take matters into their own hands and have gone out of their way to kill Black people in every one of these scenarios.
Since I am only one person, there is always something else I can learn. I decided to reach out to 3 familiar faces to Wake Forest fans: Cameron Glenn, Brad Watson and Thomas Brown. 3 players from 3 different backgrounds, all who have come and spent 4 years at Wake Forest. These are guys I always saw on campus, talked to and thought that they were the pinnacle of what it is to be in college: a D1 football player. They never had to deal with the things that I did growing up black.
How wrong I was.
Thomas Brown grew up in Evans, Georgia, not too far out of Augusta, echoed this sentiment, “My high school, we weren’t good at most sports outside of Baseball and Soccer. But me being a good football player, everybody looked at me differently, yanno? You get talked to more out in the area. I went to a predominately white high school. People were more willing to say things to you out in public. But I had (black)friends that didn’t play sports, people would see them and wouldn’t say a word. You felt, growing up in a predominately white area, you had to be the top, the best, just to be able to live a normal high school life. You had to have the best grades, be the best athlete, just so people didn’t look at you differently.”
Brad Watson, growing up in states away in Round Rock, Texas, to this day feels the same way. “You’re a product of your environment. So your popularity, the respect that people give you, is measured by what you do on a football field. I don’t think that people would’ve embraced me the way they did if I didn’t score touchdowns or intercept passes on Friday nights.”
Things change once you get to college, right?
In the Fall of 2018, 69% of first-time freshmen that enrolled at Wake Forest University were White. 5% were black. As a whole, White undergraduate students outnumbered all other races combined by over 2,100 students. Both of these numbers are consistent when looking at 2017 and 2016 data provided by the University itself.
“They look at you, ‘Oh he MUST be an athlete that’s the only reason he can be at the school I am.’’, voiced Brown. “I remember me and Brad, we had been on campus for only a couple of weeks, we had been with some former teammates and we would talk about how we would be out in the community. Someone would ask us what school we went to and we would respond with Wake Forest. The FIRST thing they say is, ‘what sport do you play?’ It was a slap in the face, so you don’t think I could get here on my academic talents, I have to be an athlete?”
Watson chuckled with, “that was seriously insulting, for me when I first got to Wake. I hated that.”
This is something that many Black people face both in school, as well as in the workplace, just phrased in a different way. People assuming you were hired just due to some “diversity initiative.” I experienced a guy on my freshman hall tell me “you had it easier getting into Wake and getting a scholarship because you’re Black, while I had to work harder just to get one of the spots like everyone else.” You hear and see people joke about how affirmative action “actually discriminates again white people.” “At Wake, you’re just another Black face,” Brown pointed out, “we just also happened to play football too.”
Growing up black, you learn how to make yourself “pass.” Code-switching is a real thing in America. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, “nearly half of black college graduates say they feel the need to change how they express themselves when around people with different racial and ethnic backgrounds”, compared to less than 35 percent of white college graduates. Without a thought, Black Americans shift their speech, their demeanor, enunciate every single consonant and vowel, and present themselves as “acceptable.”
Glenn, hailing from Stone Mountain, GA(right outside of Atlanta) had his own dealings growing up outside of Atlanta. “Where I’m from, it’s like a crazy place. One side of Stone Mountain is like the racist part, and the other part is predominately Black. It was a mix, but predominately on my side it was all black. Going from there to Wake, it was definitely a culture shock. I was better equipped because I played park ball in Gwinnett County. I had white coaches, white teammates, so I was well equipped to talk to others outside of my race.”
Ok, but when they’re off the field, they’re athletes, and athletes are always treated with more respect right?
In Black households, there’s a talk parents have to have with their children: “Don’t drive with the music too loud, keep your hands visible at all times, speak properly, don’t go anywhere without your ID.” While as kids you think “wow mom, you’re just being overbearing”, in reality, it is nothing more than parents trying to ensure their kids come back to the house alive and not in jail. Even then, it still may not be enough.
There comes a time in the lives of Black people, where you realize you’re black. You always know it, it’s always there, but there’s at least one or two moments where it sinks in for the first time and life is never the same. For me: I was in elementary school. A kid was picking on me on the playground and we ended up in a fight. What stands out to me is one kid going, “hey there’s a fight going on between the N-Word and the white!”
Brad Watson, goes into depth on just this: “Growing up, my mom always told me, especially when i got my license, “if you get pulled over by police: take your wallet out, put it in your lap, pull over and keep your hands on the steering wheel.’ When I got pulled over for the first time, that’s all i could remember, was my mom’s voice. I was so nervous during that time, I forgot to roll down my window because he came up on me really quick. I forgot to roll down the window, and he starts banging on my window and I’m a bit startled. He asks, ‘why didn’t you roll down the window?’ I said sorry and I was like super nervous, and I guess he could tell and actually let me go, but that was the first time that I knew how things could go, one mistake, and things could end for me.”
For Glenn, “I’ve always known. But the first time I’ve ever had police interaction was jarring. It was about a year ago, it was a routine traffic stop. I was coming home, late night, and it wasn’t anything, he just pulled me over just because I guess, ‘cause he didn’t give me a ticket. But I pulled over, and of course it’s late and it’s a dark road so I’m scared already, I put my hands on the steering wheel, I’m shaking low-key, the cop comes out and my windows are already down. He tells me what he thought I was doing, and I was talking to him but I was doing my best to talk to him as clear as possible. He asked me, ‘you’re acting kinda weird?’ I told him, “sir I’m not gonna lie to you I’m just scared right now” and you could hear it in my voice, I was shaking. He then puts his hand on his gun holster and asks, ‘you don’t have a gun in the car do you?’ I’m like no, of course not and I started sweating and that was the first time I realized I could be shot by the police for nothing.”
Just take a step back here for a second. If you’re a non person of color, think about any time you’ve been pulled over. Have you ever been scared to death you won’t come out of it alive? That simply isn’t the reality for a Black man in America, who even after expresses that he’s just afraid, somehow makes him even more of a danger than originally perceived. Two DIVISION ONE ATHLETES, who live their lives on the straight and narrow, become absolutely frozen at the sight of police interaction because they know for them, one misstep could be the difference between life and death. They didn’t kill anyone, they weren’t running after an armed robbery, they were solely guilty of the worst crime in America: being Black.
Black people, but especially Black athletes are always asked for their opinions but the answer isn’t what others want to hear, they can be ostracized, blackballed, reprimanded. It’s gotten to the point where there are levels of being feeling so uncomfortable, so afraid of repercussions, that it’s better to not say anything about anything. You have to protect the brand.
“It’s tough being on a football team, knowing if you react to something, you’re going to have to explain that to your coach and he might not understand, and now you’re looked at as, ‘the crazy Black guy that turns up on everybody’, you don’t want to hurt your teammates and you don’t want to hurt yourself. It’s a lot of things you have to think about when you’re on a college campus like Wake, you can’t react to every single thing”, explained Watson.
With this, Thomas Brown brings a big point here, “Your friends, your allies, those are those ones that need to speak out. They always come to you(black athletes) asking how you feel, nobody’s going to Tom Brady asking how he feels, or Aaron Rodgers. But they’re gonna ask how Russell Wilson feels, how Lamar Jackson feels, how Patrick Mahomes feels. What they’re gonna do.”
Brown also recalled a story from his time at Wake. “When me and Brad were in college, we were walking to practice, somebody stuck their head out of the window and yelled ‘n-words’ and kept on driving. Me and Brad just kind of stopped. We were shocked, but then we kept on and just brushed it off. But if this happened now(post-football), it would be a completely different story. Because I’m not worried about my football team, my football ‘brand’ so to speak, I’m worried more about how I can look myself in the mirror when I let stuff like that happen.”
This isn’t a bashing of Wake Forest coaches or those covering the team, this is a critique of how those in power handle delicate talks. Every company wishes to be one that allows their workers to be able to speak up in the face of injustice, but the fears of being reprimanded by their director, coworkers looking at them negatively for speaking up because they may have outed someone who people say, “I can’t believe it, they always nice to me”, or simply nothing being done at all are very prevalent in every single type of workplace for people of color. No coach or manager or CEO will ever outright say you aren’t allowed to express yourself for what you think is right. But if you aren’t on the front lines showing you want change, the pressure to stay silent will always be there.
“In the locker room, there’s been times we’ve talked about politics. That’s probably one of the biggest problems in the locker room, per se. Trying to get people to understand, where we’re coming from and trying to have them understand why we feel a certain way towards Donald Trump in particular. It really opens your eyes, wow there’s no way for these guys to understand where we’re coming from.”
“The next day(after the 2016 election) Coach had to address the team because he saw we were kind of divided”
Imagine how alone you would feel in this world. You can’t go outside or else someone will just randomly call you the N word. You cant go to better schools to educate yourself because you’re always looked at as an outsider, not good enough to be there. You can’t go on a drive because if you get pulled over you could just be arrested for nothing or end up dead. You have an outlet in football and those who are going out there with you morning after morning, day after day, still aren’t in a position to.. well protect you. To understand why you feel the way you do. It’s draining. It’s defeating.
When the topic of the police and Black people in America come up, there is absolutely no way the recent
death murder of George Floyd doesn’t come to mind, and doesn’t come up in conversation.
“I never met George Floyd, but I shed tears over George Floyd”, explains Brown, “Cause I just know that could be anybody! That could be me, that could be Brad, that could be Cameron, that could be anyone on this call. For nothing. They don’t need a reason, and I’m tired of explaining that to people who’s parents didn’t have to have that conversation with them... it’s exhausting. I don’t want people to move the goalposts. People with the riots and looting, I don’t support it at all, but I’m not judging, I’m not judging at all. People are fed up.”
From Glenn, “Things can be replaced, Black lives cannot be replaced.”
Throughout the last few days, texts, calls, emails, dms, etc have come to Black people near and far from allies asking, “what can we do?” It’s a tricky question for some, easier to answer than others. Are you protesting, are you voting, are you donating, are you sticking your neck out for your Black friends.
“It all starts with voting,” explains Glenn, “I’ve signed petitions, I’ve donated money so far, as of now that’s all we really can do. And pray.”
There is a glimmer of hope the last few days to both myself, as well as these three. Watson expressed, “There’s gonna be some uncomfortable conversations that have to be had... I’ve seen people speak about race that I’ve never would’ve guessed had an opinion about race, so hopefully some good comes out of this.”
Glenn spells out his feelings on this: “It’s just so sick to me. The light at the end of the tunnel for me, I know for sure this is going to bring about some sort of plan to make changes in the future. I know these changes aren’t going to happen in our lifetime, this is something that has to happen generationally. It’s not going to happen in our lifetime, and honestly the saddest part. I feel like there’s no way to stop racism, there’s no way to stop hate, that’s always going in this world regardless, all we want is to be treated the same way in the justice system. The racists are going to be racist for the rest of their lives, who cares? We just want the LAW to see us in the same light as everyone else.”
“It is not our job to educate you. We’ve been talking about it, tweeting about it, preaching about it for years.” This statement from Thomas resonates with me because well, I agree. It’s felt like we have this discussion all too often that comes across as, “well can you just tell me what I need to do?” The answer is no, at a certain point if you’re truly an ally, it starts with you looking at yourself and evaluating what you’re doing in your every day life and how does that effect the people of color in your life and ones you don’t know. Are you sticking up for them and checking your friends when they’re being problematic even if a person of color isn’t around? Are you reaching out to those in your life to check on them?
I finally asked, “What would you have told 10-11 year old you about how to prepare about growing up in the world you live in now?”
The consensus answer:
“When you take off your helmet, the same people who are cheering for you in the stands, are the same people who won’t hire you to get a job. They cheer for you because you provide a service, you provide entertainment.”