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Just Being “Not Racist” Is Not Good Enough

Jun 17 2020
Photo by
David Richard/AP Photo
Photo by
David Richard/AP Photo
Joe Thomas
Retired NFL
Jun 17 2020

For the past few weeks I have been silent on social media and haven’t really said anything publicly about the historic moment that our country is facing. Like many other Americans, I’ve been unsure of exactly what to say and how to express myself. And, to be honest, I’ve also been a bit afraid — of saying the wrong thing, or coming across as ignorant or insensitive to the issues, or even just communicating a problem without knowing how best to help bring about a solution.

But I can no longer keep quiet.

There are some things that I want to say — things that, actually, I need to say.

I played 11 years for the Cleveland Browns with the mindset of “accountability to my teammates.” And now, in this moment, I feel accountable to my black friends and family to speak out and share my thoughts on the racial injustice that continues to plague this country, as well as my perspectives on empathy and the value of exiting one’s comfort zone.   

During the past couple of weeks, I’ve been talking with dozens of my friends, colleagues and neighbors, and, although we all have a sense of the problem, the question we always come back to is the same: What’s the solution?

White America must confront the fact that racism is real.

How do you change centuries of prejudice and bias in a period measured in years instead of generations? I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I also don’t believe that that means I should just throw my arms up and move on. After a lot of listening, learning and introspection, some realizations and potential positive steps have become clear to me.

First and foremost, I’ve learned that being “not racist” is just not good enough.

White America must confront the fact that racism is real. We must empathize with those facing it, actively call it out, and bring it to light in all its forms.

Over the past few weeks, during scores of conversations, I’ve noticed that my black friends are all telling me something similar right now. These are men and women from all walks of life; they come from the country, cities and suburbs of America. They’ve attended the most expensive private schools and the most impoverished and broken public schools. They are Democrats and Republicans. They’ve come from wealth and they’ve come from extreme poverty. And they’re all telling me the same thing: They feel uncomfortable being black in America because of how they are treated on a daily basis.

The stories they have shared with me — of being pulled over and forced out of their cars at gunpoint due to a case of mistaken identity, of having the police called on them just because they were out taking a walk in the neighborhood, of people in social settings assuming that because they were black they wouldn’t be intelligent or informed or speak “proper” English — all have similarities based in racism and stereotyping. This treatment my friends described can be extreme or subtle, but in either case it is unquestionably NOT the way white Americans are treated. It’s not the way I’m treated.

Why would nearly all of my friends and colleagues be telling me the same thing? The obvious answer is that America has a problem, and it’s long past time to fix it. It’s long past time for white America to listen, and — as those who hold the bulk of the power in this country — to do our part in dismantling the systemic racism within our society. 

Jason Miller/Getty Images

Growing up in a predominantly white area of the predominantly white state of Wisconsin, it was, I’m sad to say, relatively easy for me to go through life without recognizing or reckoning with the obvious signs of racism. I honestly thought that since I didn’t associate myself with any people or groups who were outwardly racist, and I didn’t act in a way that struck me as racist, that this meant that I myself was not a racist, and that racism wasn’t a huge issue. What I didn’t understand was that this country is immersed in racism — whether we see it or not.

My family, friends and community members rarely spoke about race relations, or how people from different races have different experiences growing up in America. Race was a taboo topic. It was just something that you … didn’t discuss. I now realize that that was a deeply regrettable scenario, and that racism flourishes in exactly this way: by hiding behind apathy and lack of understanding among the masses.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but being “not racist” is merely a shroud for racism.

When I began playing sports competitively, I was introduced to a much broader circle of friends from more diverse backgrounds. That continued as I transitioned to a college football team that was equally black and white, and then to the NFL, which is predominantly black. Even still, I am sad to say that I went through a majority of my NFL career without truly trying to understand the black experience in America. You often hear coaches say that, in the locker room, you can talk about anything … except religion, politics or someone else’s girl. And unfortunately I never really tried to challenge those limitations, or to expand out too far beyond what was considered “safe” territory for conversations.

That all changed in 2017, my final year in the league.

I was sitting in my offensive meeting room having an open debate and conversation about race in the NFL. One of my teammates shared with the group his frequent experience of walking through places as innocuous as a grocery store or a mall and constantly getting uneasy looks, or having store employees follow him.

I’d never experienced anything similar. 

After hearing that story from my teammate, I tried my best to put myself in his shoes and imagine what it must be like to be uncomfortable nearly everywhere you go in public — to feel like people are constantly watching and judging you just because of the color of your skin. I realized that it would make me feel like an outsider in my own country.

Since then, I’ve had many similar conversations — and I believe that I’m a better person for each of those talks. I try my best to be open and to deeply listen, to look out for my own potential biases, and to not fall back on any assumptions so that I can learn as much as I possibly can. I try to ask questions (even when they’re hard, or when I feel stupid or insecure to be asking them) so as to gain a greater perspective on what life is like for my black friends and teammates — and what it’s like growing up black in America.

It’s impossible for me to truly feel the daily pain experienced by my black friends, but I believe that it’s important for me to do everything I can to understand that pain. 

Learning about the black experience, and having those sorts of discussions, can be a major, driving force for change. Sometimes just recognizing and admitting there is a problem is the first and largest step toward finding a solution.

I firmly believe that it is imperative for us to seek out conversations and opportunities to share stories that reflect different experiences, to help advance meaningful change in the hearts and minds of Americans so that we can transform this country into a more free and equitable land.


Rob Carr/Getty Images

Racism is a deep and enduring pain in the black community, but the problem is rooted in the white community. And being “not racist” is simply not good enough. In the football world, when something is going wrong with a team, there’s a saying that goes, “You’re either coaching it, or allowing it, and both are a problem.” When it comes to racial bias in America, I believe that it’s pretty much the same thing: You’re either prejudiced, or you’re allowing prejudice to exist — and both are a problem.

We cannot just be nonracist. We really do need to be antiracist.

Antiracism is direct opposition to any idea that supposes one race is better than any other in any respect. An antiracist sees more black people in poverty than white people and says, “There must be something racist going on here” — because without racism there should be no difference in outcomes between races.

In order to spur progress, we all need to be people who point out and shine a spotlight on racism wherever we see it. It doesn’t always have to be confrontational, but it does need to become the societal norm that racism is identified and not tolerated in any form or fashion. We cannot be afraid to talk about race and inequality any longer.

We cannot just be nonracist. We really do need to be antiracist.

As white Americans, we must help drive this change, and we need to spread that message. People of privilege need to actively facilitate that change. Understanding our fellow man will lead us to care and empathize with our fellow man, and we should be uncomfortable in not calling out racism. We should be uncomfortable in not doing what is right.

Again, I’ll be honest: I’m coming to all of this fairly late. I’m not proud of that. And I don’t have all the answers on next steps, and on how best to move from calling out racism to actively dismantling it in real, meaningful ways. But I’m eager to listen to — and learn from — the people who know more than I do about building lasting movements and driving long-term change. And I know that if we’re going to make any real progress from here, we all need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and take ownership of this problem. We need to ask ourselves: Are my daily actions merely “not racist,” or are they “antiracist”? Am I being passive or active? That is the standard by which we need to measure ourselves.

Nick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty Images

And there’s no time to waste. The sooner we can progress toward a society that refuses to stand for racism and injustice at any level, the sooner we can change our country for the better.   

I want black people in America to feel comfortable and like they are equal in all areas of society, but especially in the areas that give them a reasonable chance of upward mobility in the same manner that I had growing up. Opportunities shouldn’t be based on skin color.

And I want white people to recognize our biases, whether overt or latent, and how those biases affect our actions on a daily basis.

Education is a powerful way to change perspective. If you don’t have resources or people in your life that can help educate you on the black experience to give you that empathy and perspective, my former Browns teammate Emmanuel Acho has just released a video series with Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey titled Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black ManIt’s an incredible series that discusses the black experience in America and answers many of the questions that white America may be too uncomfortable to discuss.

In so many ways, it helped me to recognize and understand biases that I’d developed over time, so that I could further work on dismantling them and becoming a better person. If you watch, you’ll learn about certain assumptions you may make, or actions you might take, that you may not have even realized existed, but that you can now think about how to adjust.  

Emmanuel’s series also discusses some tangible steps on how to bring about real change and lasting equality for black Americans. At the very least, among other things, we can all take some time to write our congressional and local representatives to demand they take these issues seriously, and we can research and support community groups in our cities and towns that are working to fight against racial injustice.

Like I said, these are just first steps. But they’re a good start.

And most importantly— the time is now.

The task facing our country is challenging, but understanding what’s at stake should give us all great resolve.

Joe Thomas
Retired NFL