When is it okay to call out someone’s racial bias? Is it ever okay? Some would answer never, unless the offending party clearly made their intentions known. But what if the biases exist but are not known nor clearly seen by the offender? Are the victims of the offenders biases to happily accept the offenses consistently?
For six years I’ve had to subconsciously filter through these questions as a coach, but it took me getting thrown out of a football game for the embodiment of these questions to come alive.
Not the “Typical” Football Coach
I am a head freshman football coach in Texas. I am a Christian, I am black, and I am 28 years old with a baby face (I still get mistaken for a student by my colleagues and the community). Everyday I am forcefully reminded that I’m not “like” everyone else in my profession.
When I introduce myself to referees, opposing coaches and players, and parents, the nonverbal questioning on their faces reminds me that I’m not the prototypical Texas high school football coach. I don’t look proven and grungy. I don’t sound demanding. I don’t let football run my life. I’m not white.
Part of the reason why I own a big white truck is to try to be as “normal” as possible.
Remember, You’re Different
Everyday I’m made aware of these facts, and I cannot escape them. Though I am aware, I laugh to keep things normal. Though I am aware, I remain quiet when I disagree with my colleagues about social injustices and the ensuing protests. Though I am aware, I avoid controversies because I am convicted to develop relationships with coaches and players. Because I am aware I coach my players hard with an intense focus on revealing and developing their character.
At the start of every game I am made more aware that I don’t fit what’s “normal” for what a “typical” football coach looks and sounds like. So I try being overly respectful and twice as good of a coach to athletes, coaches, and officials to make up for what makes people uncomfortable about me. Though I do not always like my job, I always try being my best for what others may see is lacking in me. I sacrifice the comfort of just being me for the comforts of everyone around me.
Except for this one time.
With four minutes left in the game, our quarterback rolled to his right desperately trying to find an open receiver, and appeared to have been hit late out of bounds. We were losing the game and my passions were running high. I exclaimed to the referee –motioning with my hands – “throw the flag! They hit him late out of bounds!” “No they didn’t coach,” the head referee replied, smugly ignoring my request to be taken seriously. (I use the adjective smugly on purpose and not to simply reinforce my point. It is often that I am not taken seriously as a coach because of the way I look.)
I exclaimed again, “C’mon, you guys threw the flag for them on their sideline when they got hit late out of bounds. Protect my players too!” I was then penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct for questioning and challenging the officials non-call. I was shocked.
In my playing and coaching experience I have never seen any football coach penalized for challenging an official’s call in the ways that I did. The mixture of my passion, self-awareness, ridiculousness of the penalization, and my felt need to have my players protected gave way to a sentence that jumped from my lips before I could catch it.
Young, Black, and You Don’t Like That
“Listen, I understand that I’m young and black and you don’t like that, but you need to protect my players!” The intersection of rage, fear, and offensiveness that met in the face of that white official will be forever seared in my memory.
“Coach,” he pointed his finger directly at my face, “you need to stop!” Angered that he would continue to ignore me and not acknowledge what was inherently true, I repeated the statement, this time bolder than before. “No! I get it! I’m young and I’m black, and you don’t like that – but you need to protect my players.”
The official flung his hat in the air – his face now red – and ejected me from the game. I was furious and when I got to the locker room away from my players and parents I let out a string of words I hadn’t used in years. It was not my most Christ-like moment.
I knew then, and now, that probably wasn’t the best time to address what was and is true – that age, race, and social ranking subconsciously affect our decisions and biases about people. Had it been Bill Belichick, Nick Saban, or any other more established looking white coach arguing that call in the same way I did, I would not have been penalized, let alone ejected. Though my timing might have been off, (some disagree) what I said was true and I meant it. I do not regret what I said. I regret when I said it, but only because I could not finish the game with my team.
But in another sense, I don’t regret when I said it.
An Ugly Mirror
My words exposed what belie in that referees heart and mind. Had I been white and said “I get that I’m young, white, and you don’t like that,” he would have laughed at me. Instead, he later accused me of calling him a racist. I never did. But in his mind, the fact that I’d call out what he really saw and felt – without him even fully knowing it – made him look into the mirror of his soul and face what was already there. It was clear, he did not like what he saw. He did not like what he felt. He saw a racist – his subsequent hair pinned reaction to eject me from the game only confirmed what was there before I ever said anything. The only way he could remove the mirror was by removing me from his sight.
This is what the majority of White America does to black America. I know this because this is what I live everyday. White America wants everyone to assimilate to their culture, ignore race while they ignore their biases, and just go along for the sake of their comfort. If we do not cooperate, if we do not stand for their worship of country, they demand our removal from their society. They remove us from games. They tell us to move to another country, or they red-line us to exploit and keep us away from them. They ignore the historical facts of this country because they can. They complain that we complain that we are forced to live like this in “the land of the free” everyday.
If the referee heard me call him a racist, then I certainly heard him say “how dare you feel comfortable enough in my country to challenge my racial superiority? How dare you accuse me of having a wrong racial bias?” Because I indeed was accusing him of seeing what I already knew he saw when he looked upon my body.
A Time for Exposure
When African Americans are self-aware, are acknowledging what makes us different, and are calling out the feelings that are self-suppressed within White America, we threaten everything that America hates about itself, and we aren’t liked for it.
In the words of activist/artist Propaganda, I get it but I don’t get it. Calling out racial biases is vital for our health and White America’s. There is a time and a place for everything under the sun, but we must not let the moments to expose darkness pass us by. We should not run from the places that make us uncomfortable. It’s not sexy to be disliked, but it is gratifying for us to face the realities that we all hold dignity, because we are all God’s image-bearers.