By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) “It would take a white player to really get things changed.”
Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett told SportsCenter that this week regarding his protest of the national anthem before games, a protest he plans to continue all season.
“It would change the whole conversation,” Bennett said. “Because when you bring somebody who doesn’t have to be a part of (the) conversation making himself vulnerable in front of it, I think when that happens, things will really take a jump.”
The key part of Bennett’s statements is “somebody who doesn’t have to be part of the conversation.” This is a layman’s way of describing privilege, the systematic unearned benefits certain groups of people are afforded in society over others. Male privilege is real. Straight and cis privileges are real. Able-bodied privilege is real.
Bennett is speaking to white privilege, specifically the bit that allows white people to be consciously or unconsciously absent from the prescient race conversation in the United States yesterday, today and many tomorrows from now.
As a white man, I can care about issues facing people of color in this country, can write and tweet about them, can donate money to causes tied to those issues, could even join in a march or protest. I might make myself “vulnerable” to criticism or ostracism from readers, family and friends, parents of students I teach fearing I’m “imposing my beliefs on their child.”
At the least, I can check my privilege — make myself aware of the numerous benefits big and small afforded to me by birth. But at the end of the day, if I do any combination of those things, as a white man I go home every night largely benefitting from many blind spots that have been recognized for at least 30 years.
I can also choose to ignore them or diminish them, to just “stick to sports” and teach the white, male American literary canon, and still my life would hardly be different. I’d still have the typical job headaches and car problems and leaky faucets that don’t discriminate, but that’s not what privilege is about (and part of privilege is being able to ignore and not study privilege with repercussion).
This week, Chris Long, a white man on the Philadelphia Eagles and brother of Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long, checked his privilege. It began Sunday following the events of Charlottesville, where Chris attended college and resides.
It then continued into the Eagles preseason game Thursday, when Long stood next to Malcolm Jenkins, who was raising his right fist in protest during the national anthem. His right hand over his heart, Long conspicuously put his left arm around his teammate.
“I just told Malcolm, ‘I’m here for you,’” Long said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “I think it’s a good time for people that look like me to be here for people that are fighting for equality.”
And there Long became the white player whom Bennett pondered.
“This is a moment in time where he feels the need to kind of take that step and lead, and I appreciate that,” Jenkins said of his teammate’s gesture.
“Stepping out in front of all those people and the obvious attention that is going to be brought to it is not an easy thing to do. I think looking at the atmosphere last year compared to this year, so much has transpired and in a negative direction that I think the stakes are almost higher now.”
The move by Long is quite simple but crucial. He’s now the first white NFL player to demonstrate during the anthem. He understands that while the issues players like Jenkins, Bennett and Colin Kaepernick are protesting largely affect communities of color, this isn’t a “black thing.”
“It’s been a hard week for everybody,” Long said. “I think it’s not just a hard week for someone being from Charlottesville. It’s a tough week for America. I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘You need white athletes to get involved in the anthem protest.’ I’ve said before that I’ll never kneel for an anthem because the flag means something different to everybody in this country, but I support my peers.
“And if you don’t see why you need allies for people that are fighting for equality right now, I don’t think you’ll ever see it. My thing is Malcolm’s a leader and I’m here to show support as a white athlete.”
Long seems to understand that his support helps to validate the cause that wouldn’t affect him if he chose silence as so many other athletes that look like him have. Adding a white face pokes a large hole in the myriad bad arguments used by the very people who need to be made uncomfortable by their precious red, white and blue symbols being “disrespected.”
They’re the almost 100 percent crossover of Venn diagram circles — one that would prefer sports allow them the privilege of ignoring these issues and one defending Confederate monuments to rape, murder and treason that still exist across the country for weak reasons that always lead to validating racism and ignoring the privilege of being able to call a statue to a proponent of slavery “a piece of important history.”
Knowing how stupid that argument is, Tampa sports teams stepped out this week to collectively offer support for the removal of a Confederate statue in the city’s downtown.
These Tampa teams using their position in the lives of so many fans and the local community and as large otherwise soul-less businesses to work to remove Confederate monuments is an example of making themselves vulnerable for the sake of a greater good. The Buccaneers, Lightning and Rays could easily wash their hands of the issue and pretend that their given sport isn’t political. But they chose to step into the screams of “Just lost a lotta respect for this organization” and the fake threats of “I’ll never buy a ticket again” (those people will) to point to something held dear by misguided people and say, “This is wrong, and we can’t sit on the sidelines and let it continue to be wrong.”
Just as criticizing wealthy athletes for siding with marginalized groups on social issues misunderstands that they’re checking their privilege. Yes, the rich football player very much should tell you what to think when it comes to police violence or a giant participation trophy celebrating a cause of dying for the right to own other people. His money doesn’t disqualify him. It amplifies him.
And a white player speaking up for the suffering occurring in communities he might not belong to is a start. To making other privileged fans who’d rather plug their ears with a song (by a slaveowner), blindfold themselves with a flag (that isn’t really a soldier’s cause) and lean on the canard of preserving history or a non-existent culture face these issues. To further debunk any other excuse to dismiss these protests.
To change the conversation, make more people vulnerable on behalf of those whose vulnerability they didn’t choose and take a jump toward justice and righteousness. Hopefully more white athletes make that jump.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.