In terms of race relations, America has never been through a more volatile time in my lifetime than the last couple of years. It seems like we are reaching a critical point- how much more polarized can we really get? The topic of race relations is something that has been on my mind a lot, especially since Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Missouri, and as other high-profile deaths such as Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and the Charleston Nine have been in the news. This is why I read Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race–And Getting Free From the Fears and Frustrations That Divide Us by Benjamin Watson, who is an NFL player currently playing tight end for the Baltimore Ravens.
I’ve followed Watson’s career since he played for my hometown New England Patriots. Following the events of Ferguson, he penned a viral Facebook post about race. I appreciated the tone of this post at the time because while he was quite honest about his raw emotions, he also made a legitimate attempt to be fair and give the benefit of the doubt, admitting that he didn’t know exactly what had happened between Michael Brown and police officer Darren Wilson in the moments before Wilson shot Brown. I was glad to see this attempt at bridging the gap between the two sides- raw, emotional defense of Brown (and by extension, all black people) versus matter-of-fact defense of Wilson (and by extension, all police officers, especially white ones). About a year later, Watson released Under Our Skin, which basically follows the outline and tenor of his Facebook post: each chapter essentially details how he is hopeful, hopeless, embarrassed or offended, for example, when thinking about race.
Just over 200 pages, Under Our Skin did not take me long to finish. It was in one sense easy to read, because of Watson’s conversational style. You don’t have to be a sociology major to understand what he’s trying to say. He addresses real issues plainly and articulately, and yet this is precisely why this is not an easy read: he lays out some truths about race in America that are uncomfortable for white people like me to look in the eye. Racism is ugly, so much so that I would sometimes like to believe that it does not exist anymore because Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream in the ’60s. That solved everything, right?
I can afford to think that way because I’ve never been racism’s target. When it became apparent to me how many blacks have common experiences with racism every day, that’s when I really started to understand it. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people made up stories to “play the victim”, but as I started actually listening to my black friends and people like Benjamin Watson, I began hearing the common experiences that black people have with racism every day and realizing that there was no way that many people were all making this up. It certainly isn’t comfortable realizing that you’ve been quite blind about how the world really is, but pulling the wool off my eyes has helped make me more empathetic, at the least.
This book might not be entirely comfortable or easy for a black person to read either, I would guess. Watson makes it clear that he is not blaming whites for every problem that blacks have to deal with. He demands that we do not diminish personal responsibility for individual black people, especially in terms of interactions with police and some of the looting and rioting that has gone on in communities like Ferguson and Baltimore. He admits that bias, suspicion and unfair assumptions linger in all human hearts, even African-American hearts, even his own. He illustrates this by telling of a time when he was offended by a comment that a white acquaintance made, only to later discover that his assumption was actually wrong, that he had misunderstood the specific comment, and there had been nothing to be offended about. Overall, this is not the theme of Under Our Skin but there is enough of it that it might get under the skin of those who might use the term “respectability politics”.
Something else that made this an easy read for me was the fact that Watson and I share a worldview- he is an evangelical Christian like myself (but not in the politicized sense of the term “evangelical”). I may not have the same experiences or perspective that he has as a black man, but the common ground of Christianity drew me in, gave him extra credibility in my eyes, and made me more willing to listen and try to understand parts of his story that I could not relate to on a personal level. And I think that’s what Watson is aiming for with this book: to help white Christians and black Christians listen to and understand each other better. Understanding each other better as Christians of different races can help us show grace to others, even- and especially- when they do not share our skin color or faith, which cannot but positively affect society as a whole.
So go and read Under Our Skin, but- more importantly- have conversations with people who don’t look or think like you, and make an effort to understand them. And to my black brothers and sisters, I’m sorry that it took me so long, but I’m finally listening.