To the black and white youth of America,
On my first day of kindergarten, we stood in a circle and said the Pledge of Allegiance. The teacher asked everyone to hold hands. When I reached out to my classmates, no one would touch me. No one would hold my hand. At five years old, I looked around the classroom and I immediately knew the reason.
I was black and everyone else was white.
My high school experience was unique because I was a star athlete. While my classmates respected me, some of my opponents from other schools still held my race against me. In football, players from other teams would sometimes call me a N***** after they tackled me and in basketball, some fans from other schools would taunt me with racial slurs while I warmed up for a game. I was offended, but it never caught me off guard. This was and still is customary as a black kid and man in America.
Now, you may look at me and see a successful black man: a graduate from a top university, a first-round NFL draft pick, a 12-year NFL All-Pro, a Hollywood actor and a CEO of a tech startup.
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You may say racism didn’t impact me on my journey. But that is far from the truth. I just so happened to have athletic skills that allowed some to push racism to the side because I benefited their team, city or bank account.
Even with my status, when I am pulled over by the police it’s not just an annoyance like it is for someone who is white. For me, it could be a life-or-death experience just like it was Philando Castile. He was shot and killed in front of his girlfriend and her child during a traffic stop while his girlfriend says he was just reaching for his license.
The police officer that killed him did not even go to prison. He was acquitted and paid nearly $50,000 as part of a separation agreement to end his employment.
Black people are even hurt or killed by the police in their homes. Recently, a 28-year-old woman, Atatiana Jefferson, was shot through her bedroom window by a police officer. Before the shooting, her family says she was playing video games with her eight-year-old nephew. As we await more answers, the police officer who killed her was arrested for murder but released hours later on $200,000 bond.
Her story comes on the heels of the trial for Botham Jean. Jean was shot by an off-duty police officer while eating ice cream in his apartment.
The police officer who killed him received a 10-year sentence with eligibility for parole in just five years.
Instinctively, I have extreme anxiety about the police as the aforementioned stories are just a couple of examples that show me that the justice system was not set up to protect black people. It was not set up to protect me.
Black people in America statistically don’t receive the same treatment or opportunity as white people. That does not mean that if you are a white child, you have to grow up feeling sorry for black kids and if you are a black kid you don’t have to feel like woe is me. But this is the society you inherited.
Whether you are a white kid or a black kid, racism is not your fault. It started long before you or I got here. However, it is up to you to make sure it’s not here long after we are gone. All of you can help dissolve racism.
Here is how…
First, we need to start over. To do so, we need to look back at our history. You have to know where you have been to know where you are going. Slavery is at the root of racism in America. If you study the atmosphere in which slavery was cultivated, it will give you a greater perspective on the racial dynamic between black and white people in this country.
A part of the problem is the current curriculum in most schools doesn’t efficiently address black history. It gives us a couple of cool black people that were assets to white culture and then focuses on men like Thomas Jefferson. Schools teach us that Jefferson is one of America’s founding fathers. He even founded the University of Virginia, where I received a great education. What schools failed to teach me as a kid was that he was a slave owner, housing my ancestors on the same grounds where I ultimately attended classes and starred on the field. Therefore, he is no founding father or hero to me.
I didn’t learn much about African-American or African history until I searched for it either in college or in the last 15 years through resources online. I realized that black history didn’t start with slavery. Black people have a global history of greatness that started long before coming to America. Brilliant inventors and royalty are just a part of black people’s lineage. Africa is the richest continent in natural resources. From its food to its music, African culture has a worldwide influence.
Even though you are just kids, you need to venture outside of your classrooms and your schools to learn African history as well as real American history. Go to the library, go to YouTube or listen to podcasts. Expose yourself to the accomplishments of black people while also acknowledging the ugliness of our country’s past. It is important that all of you, black or white, understand that there is so much more to black history than what you’ve probably been taught in school or you have seen on TV.
Secondly, be unafraid to talk about race.
Sometimes white people ask me, “Why does everything have to be about race?”
What they don’t realize is that America was built on race and racism. It has been intertwined in nearly every aspect of our society since slavery.
Some white people will say, “Well, slavery is long gone. Let’s forget it and move on.”
The problem is the damage has led to deeply-rooted systemic and psychological effects that are still very much alive and prevalent today.
So while some white people are tired of talking about race and racism, trust me, black people are even more tired of talking about race and enduring racism.
But an open dialogue is necessary for change.
The other day one of my white producer friends said, “It’s hard being a white man in America right now.”
I initially looked at him like he was crazy but then I decided to take it as an opportunity to have a meaningful and educational conversation about race.
If you are white, you might be uncomfortable asking questions about race. It’s OK if you don’t know about a black person’s experience, but to solve the problem we all have to talk about it. We have to be open to listening and trying to understand each other’s circumstances, so we can be more aware and compassionate.
Regularly, I post on social media about black love and black excellence. Some people have called me racist because of it. That’s not the case. In reality, I am trying to encourage and empower black people to love and value ourselves and to realize we are not inferior like we’ve been told and treated throughout American history.
I want you all to understand that honesty is not racism. It’s OK to speak the truth and it’s also OK to ask about the truth. The acknowledgment of race doesn’t perpetuate our problems, dismissing or ignoring that there are problems is how racism thrives.
I also hope you speak up, not only for yourselves but for each other. Even as kids, whatever your race may be, you can take a stand. If you see someone using racial slurs or mistreating someone because of their race, help them. Live your life with dignity and courage, by not only supporting what is right for you but rather advocating for what is right overall.
A lot of successful people with large platforms won’t talk about race because they are afraid of the backlash. They are afraid it will hurt their careers or their businesses. I always say integrity over income. You get a dollar, you spend a dollar. Your integrity is here forever.
That’s the way I live my life. That’s the way my parents raised me. And that is why I am writing to you right now.
Lastly, don’t think because you have friends of a different race you are not capable of being racist.
As a former star athlete, there are a lot of white people who call me their friend. They treat me with respect and acceptance. However, I will go out with a friend who is black but did not play football and right in front of my face, those same people will talk to him differently. They will judge him differently.
That is racism. Those people in all likelihood like me for my status. What if I never played football? I might be treated just like my friend. The way I see it is disrespecting my friend is disrespecting me.
Never approach someone with preconceived notions of their character, their ability or their background. Be kind and respectful to everyone.
Understand, all white people are not racist and not all black people are criminals. When you meet people, give them a chance and take the time to get to know them as individuals instead of buying into stereotypes.
To end racism, we have to treat everyone equally and fairly. While it is a simple concept, it’s not easy to execute.
Racism today is a byproduct of years and years of inequality and mistreatment in this country. But I believe in you and I believe progress can happen.
See, the day I first recognized racism, in my kindergarten class when I was five years old, was also the day I realized how we can all fix it – by reaching out our hands and doing it together.
We can be the difference,
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