Racism and race relations in America has always been a hot button topic for generations. In recent years, with the advent of mass media and social media, the issue has remained at the forefront of the American psyche. As of late, professional athletes, actors and other public figures sometimes weigh in on these issues, but often in a surface manner, without delving too deep into the discussion. This while others opt to remain mum.
New Orleans Saints veteran tight end Ben Watson took things a giant step further. After voicing his opinion on the shooting of unarmed Ferguson, MO teenager Michael Brown on social media, his stance on the subject led to more in depth conversations, later prompting him to pen his very own book Under Our Skin: Getting Real about Race— and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us. In it, Watson gave his unfiltered, and often conflicting feelings when it comes to race relations, but more importantly, offering practical solutions. Already a very well-respected voice in his community, the sports world, as well as American culture, Watson’s analysis provides readers with the opportunity to think critically.
TheSource.com had the opportunity to chat with Ben Watson about his new book, and he gave us a glimpse into his thought process regarding one of America’s most taboo subjects, while also sharing the catalyst that sparked proactive approach.
Not many professional athletes speak out on topics such as these and of the ones who are vocal, they are often passive or vague in their approach. Perhaps they are afraid of losing endorsements or risk becoming a pariah. What made you decide to address it to such an extent as opposed to a t-shirt or a hashtag?
BW: Well because I feel like we have a real issue in this country when it comes to race, and it is something that has persisted for a very long time and it’s something that I would say recently, in the last 3 or 4 years, with many citizen-police altercations, it’s something that has come to forefront. It’s a really intense time, and I, like anyone else who pays taxes and is a citizen of this country cares. I feel like it’s time for us to get real about it.
The only way we will be able to move forward is if we are honest and real about it—not just sugarcoat everything or just do a hashtag.
Do you feel like it is the responsibility of, not just pro athletes, but all public figures who are Black, to speak out on issues like this?
BW: I wouldn’t use the term responsibility, in a sense that when you are public figure, you’re an athlete or actor, that is your job to speak out on certain things. I think you speak out on what you desire to speak out on or your passionate about. I believe that I have a platform because God blessed me with the talent to play football. Having that talent, my job is to be responsible with it.
For me, it’s about engaging. Talking about things that affect other people. Doing it a way that makes people think. That is what it is for me, but I don’t think every athlete has to do that just because they are public figure.
Going back to the first question about people being afraid to speak out as to avoid backlash, even if they agree with your stance. Has there been any of your teammates, Saints coaching staff or front office who might have discouraged you from doing this?
BW: No, if anything I’ve had great support from the Saints, from the front office to the general manager, to the media. Everyone has been very supportive of this book. My teammates were actually asking me and clamoring for the book before it was even released. Even when I wrote the Facebook post, which the book is an expansion of the post I wrote awhile back about Ferguson. A lot of guys, Black and White, said “you know what, this is what I was thinking, this is what I was feeling, I just didn’t know how to say it.
The response has been great, of course there will always be folks who may not agree with some things that I say and thats fine. I just wanted to engage with people and be transparent. In the book I talk about some of my struggles and some of my stories that I have and even some of my own prejudices and things that I need to work on.
Looking at your Facebook post about Ferguson that sparked the idea for this book, you said that you were not at the scene, and posed the question of perhaps Darren Wilson was in the right for using deadly force. You weren’t there, you wouldn’t know, saying that you cannot rush to judgement. That was a very objective point of view. Have you had pushback from people questioning why you would even say something like that?
BW: Yes, of course. The unfortunate thing about many Black people is that when you say something like that, they insinuate that you’re appealing to Whites and thats totally NOT what i’m doing. We have issues in this country, some of them are systemic, some of them aren’t but whenever these things happen, people get broken down into a Black side and a White side, always drawing a line down the middle and it’s not always that simple. Especially when you weren’t there, and when there are conflicting reports on what happened, and all of the evidence hasn’t been released yet. We’re already saying that the Black person did this, and the White person did this, we’re already making those assumptions, we’re already angry at each other before we even found out what happened.
That was a very honest moment for me because my first initial response was the first emotion that I wrote in that Facebook post, which is about being angry. I saw it and like every other Black person, I was angry because I’ve seen these things happen over and over again. We have to be able to get passed our initial reactions of things, and think objectively about situations. The book is patterned after the Facebook post. It doesn’t even really have an immediate response, i’m taking time to unpack my feelings, and think past my initial gut reaction.
You said that you shared your own personal experiences in the book. Can you give an example of such situations you’ve had either before or during your NFL career?
BW: I talk about being pulled over by the police when I was en-route to have my first baby with my wife. I tell that story in there and it could of resonates with a lot people. I talk about the first time I really realized I was Black. I think we all have that first experience when you say, hold on, I knew that I was Black, but Black means this. I remember being in grade school and something happening with a girl in our class and someone said something to me and it became real all of a sudden, and what that meant. We weren’t just hanging out as friends anymore, we were different. Even in the league, I have a couple of White teammates who I talk about in the book, and the conversations we’ve been able to have, that I feel give hope to all of us, because their open and honest, coming from a place of wanting to understand each other and not wanting to condemn. He can be honest with me about a Rachel Dolezal, Ferguson, Baltimore or about whatever the topic is. I can hear him and not be offended immediately, he just wants to know what I think about these things.
Where do you fall on the debate surrounding the N-word, and White football players such as Richie Icongnito and Riley Cooper using the word.
BW: Obviously, I’m not a fan of it at all. I remember when the Riley Cooper video came out, [teammate Michael Vick] came out and said “he apologized for it, let’s move on and play football.” I think that was a great way to handle it. The guy said it, he was wrong for it, he offended a lot of people, he had to serve whatever punishment he had to, and then let’s move on with it. I talk about that word in the book, among other things, that we as Black people need to think about. White people aren’t the only ones that shouldn’t be using the word. And I say that as someone who has used the word. When you look at other race groups, do they really use derogatory words as brothers?
When you think about the people who have died hearing that word and then people now say “oh it’s just a word.” I believe that we’re doing them a disservice and injustice by continuing to say it. And again, i’m someone who has used it before. But, we say it all of the time and then get upset when White people say it. That doesn’t absolve them of guilt, they still shouldn’t say it either, but I think it’s bigger than just that. It’s a far bigger issue than just the use of the word.
White people aren’t the only ones that shouldn’t be using the word. And I say that as someone who has used the word. When you look at other race groups, do they really use derogatory words as brothers?
In the past you’ve said that “we have to fight to say Black Lives Matter.” What can you say to kids growing up in this day and age, while also living in circumstances such as systemic poverty and inequality, and who might aspire to one day be your in position.
BW: The number one thing I tell any kid is, I try to tell them the Gospel. In the Gospel, we find out identity in Christ. It doesn’t matter what someone else says about us. And as a young Black kid growing up, facing the world today, certain try to paint them as intelligent or that they can only achieve things by two avenues, that they are going to be a statistic. That weighs on a kid, and eventually you end up living out the expectations that are placed on them. And if fathers aren’t growing up, I would challenge them to want to be a father that is present in the home, so that their kids have that identity. I would challenge them on that level, but I would also challenge them again when it comes to having a change heart by the Lord. Let the identity be found in him and not in what someone else says about them. Because you are always going to have people say things about you and try to tell you what you can’t do.
I would also say, you CAN be what you want to be. Whatever that is. When we look at our children, I think a lot of the troubles we’re having as a society is because we don’t have strong fathers in these families that can tell their kids that they can do more.