“Time to get comfortable being uncomfortable…”

It’s been almost 400 years since White Lion, a Dutch slave ship, arrived in Jamestown with 20 kidnapped Africans. Centuries later, the vestiges of America’s original sin continues to affect various social institutions of our time. To that end, the question of how to bring about change has assumed greater importance in today’s climate, especially among groups most affected by inequality and inequities resulting from our past.Yet, we also see strong resistance, or at the very least, ambivalence, that impedes change from happening. Despite these challenges, I believe that professors, particularly those at predominantly white institutions of Higher Education (PWIHEs), have a platform to address this strong power of inertia that often obstructs the changes many of us yearn for.

However, students are not always keen to have these tough conversations, especially with a young black male professor who is candid about his desires for change in the social and political institutions that disproportionally impact racial and ethnic minorities. During my time as faculty member, I’ve found that these conversations make a number of my students uncomfortable, particularly many of my white students. But in recent years, I’ve forgone my early career reservations about making my white students uncomfortable. I reasoned that I was doing all of my students a disservice by not injecting race discussions into the classroom. This is because a great majority of my students desire to work in leagues such as the NFL, WNBA, NBA, and high-profile collegiate athletic departments. Demographically, black men and women dominate these leagues. It is important that they are confronted with these issues now so that they are better informed and equipped to create and implement policies that will affect these groups in the future.

Does this make for some tense and distressing moments? Of course. But I believe Dr. Cornel West said it best when he stated the following:

“I want to be able to engage in the grand calling of a Socratic teacher, which is not to persuade and convince students, but to unsettle and unnerve and maybe even unhouse a few students, so that they experience that wonderful vertigo and dizziness in recognizing at least for a moment that their worldview rests on pudding, but then see that they have something to fall back on. It’s the shaping and forming of critical sensibility. That, for me, is what the high calling of pedagogy really is.”

Considering recent events, there is no shortage of material to discuss. For instance, it’s been more than a year since the media took notice of Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem. Systematic oppression of black people and people of color was the reason for his protest, he told reporters after the game.

So earlier this semester, I asked one of my classes, “By a show of hands, who is favor of Kaepernick and others’ protests?” As expected, the results were along racial lines. Creating small groups consisting of students from different racial backgrounds, I then had them discuss a series of questions concerning race. I could sense the apprehension in the classroom. Curious about the diversity of their friend groups, one question asked about the racial and ethnic makeup of these groups. As we came together to discuss the questions as a class, I asked how many of them would consider their friend groups racially and ethnically diverse. In a class of 60 plus students, only about five students raised their hands. Questioning why, a number of students stated they just like to “stick to their own.”

Meanwhile, another question asked them to discuss racial injustice and inequity in the U.S. The responses to these questions are often one-sided, dominated by the black students in the class. While the black students are quick to offer their own experiences, alluding to high-profile police-involved fatal shootings of black men in the process, the look on many of my white students’ faces is one of despair.

“Do we really have to talk about this?” “What does this have to do with sport?”

I found each of these answers and sentiments problematic because they have implications for how they would interrogate the final question: how can the NFL play a role in addressing the issues Kaepernick and others have cited as the reasons for their protest? Sport has, for as long as I can remember, been intertwined with the sociopolitical issues of the time. So, you see, yes, we do really have to talk about this.

One reason being, if we are talking about enterprises (e.g., NFL) in which black men are the driving force behind the revenues and profits, we should care about the social causes they are calling attention to. If not, which much of the “just stick to sport” reactions indicate, what more are they than commodities on the “field”, stoking stark resemblances of a dark past in our country’s history?

Moreover, if the students of today do not have an understanding of their peers from different backgrounds, including their experiences, what can we expect in terms of future discussions and action regarding the larger issues? Furthermore, if a number of my white students do not have experiences with black people, how can they begin to familiarize themselves with grievances concerning racial inequity and injustice? How can they go into team and league discussions about how to positively influence social change with an attitude of indifference or some cases, claims that such matters are “fake news”?

Alternatively, if my black students also do not have life experiences with people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds, how will they operate and survive in an industry where they will lack the power and resources to affect change? Lastly, how will the student-athletes, most of which happen to be black men, function in corporate settings in which the majority of powerbrokers will be white men? These are some of the questions I consider and pose to them as they move forward in their professional careers.

A function of life in Deep South, perhaps? Possibly. But the current climate shows that we are becoming more polarized, in general. We “other” people who do not look like us or share the same worldview. As I attempt to do as a citizen with my diverse friends groups, as a professor, I’ve taken it upon myself to bring various groups together that may not interact if not for my class. It is crucial that we not do life among those that think, look, and act just like us. Change is a collective enterprise, and the focus should be on diverse community rather than sameness.

In sum, we cannot possibly come to understand these issues if we operate from our separate corners. We should all have a mutual interest in peace, reconciliation and justice. I believe professors such as myself play a significant role in this. Change isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite messy. And to be honest, I’ve lost friends and acquaintances and turned off students during this season because of my candor. Notwithstanding, I encourage my fellow professors to push the envelope regarding race and other social justice issues in the classroom through the design and delivery of their courses.

-K