Charles Haley, a former defensive end for the San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys who was recently inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, made headlines this summer after making what some would consider to be a controversial statement to the 49ers’ 2015 rookie class.
In an interview with a reporter for a Bay Area newspaper, Haley recalled his conversation with the 49ers’ newest players and summarized his comments as follows:
As far as the rookies, and I know they probably got mad, but I said, “Why don’t you all act like the white guys? You never see them in the paper getting high or hitting people. Why don’t you act like that?” They all looked at me crazy.
As you might expect, Haley’s words generated a mild buzz after they were relayed through the various media outlets, yet the reaction was quite tame compared to what we’ve seen recently, when other high-profile individuals have made comments that could be perceived as “racist” or “politically incorrect.” Why was there no public outcry against Charles Haley after he made these comments?
The answer, I believe, sheds some important light on the conversation we’ve been having about deracializing our society.
You see, although Haley claimed that he said what he said primarily for the “shock value”, what’s clear is that Haley’s words are grounded in a set of assumptions about African-American men – not just those who play in the NFL, but African-American men in general. The assumptions that I’m speaking of are not the least bit unfamiliar to those of us who are immersed in American culture.
In fact, if we’re being brutally honest with one another, the truth is that we know exactly what Charles Haley is talking about.
First of all, we know that Haley was probably speaking to a group of mostly if not exclusively African-American young men. We know this because in the NFL, the majority of the players are African-American – or so it seems – and because it wouldn’t have made sense for Haley to tell the rookie group to act like “the white guys” unless they themselves were not “white.”
Secondly, we know that Haley is reacting to the same news reports that each of us sees on a daily basis, and that he’s reached the conclusion that perhaps many of us have also drawn – namely, that “black” men tend to get into more trouble than “white” men.
Of course, if we want to, we can cite the latest crime statistics and debate whether or not Haley’s conclusion is factual. But doing so misses the point.
The point is that there exists a widely-held perception, rooted in the day-to-day realities of American life, that “black” men have a greater tendency to get into trouble than other people. And this perception is so strong that even Charles Haley, who himself is African-American, felt compelled to advise a group of young African-American football players to act like “white guys” instead of “black guys.”
To me, Haley’s words reflect the extent to which negative behavior has become part of the definition of a “black” man. In our culture’s view, to be a “black” man is to be part of that group of people which continually seems to commit crimes and cause trouble for themselves and others. In our culture’s view, there is a certain way that “black” men tend to act – a predictable pattern that characterizes the behavior of “black” men – which all of us recognize and acknowledge. And it isn’t good.
Which, to me, is one of the major reasons why we African-Americans need to simply let go of being “black”.
You see, as long as there exists something called being “black” whose cultural definition includes being prone to engage in actions that are unethical or illegal or criminal or otherwise flawed, then the culture at large will remain largely hostile toward those people to whom the term “black” applies. As long as there are “black” people, there will be animosity expressed by the broader culture toward “black” people, because of what is assumed about what “black” people do and how they behave.
In fact, I would argue that what “black” people typically characterize as racism expressed toward them is usually the unwillingness of others to tolerate the negative behaviors that our culture associates with “blackness.” It is a rejection of the idea that it’s okay for a large part of America’s population to continually engage in these negative behaviors. It is less about “black” people as people per se than as perpetuators of a lifestyle that involves acting a certain way.
And the lifestyle that I’m talking about includes not only committing crimes but also other behaviors that we attribute to “black” people – behaviors such as:
- viewing ourselves as victims of a “racist” society and viewing our failures as the result of racist treatment by others
- manipulating and exploiting our nation’s welfare system in ways that create systemic poverty
- devaluing education, dropping out of school, and choosing delinquency and gang membership over self-advancement
- producing and promoting music that glorifies the gang lifestyle, contains profanity and sexually explicit lyrics, and degrades and exploits women
- speaking in a manner that reflects poor grammar and ignorance of proper English
- failing to abide by cultural conventions of modesty, decency, and civility, especially in public settings
There is obviously much that needs to be said regarding each of the items I’ve listed here, but this will have to wait until a future post. For now, the main thing that I wish to communicate is this: I honestly think that if these negative behaviors were to be dealt with and eliminated by the people who engage in these behaviors, then most of the “racism” that “black” people claim to experience would simply disappear.
And yet, this cannot and will not happen as long as there are those of us who insist on being “black” and perpetuating the “black” identity.
In other words, if we want to live in a society in which being “black” does not continually create an obstacle to being treated with basic human dignity and respect, then we have to be willing to let go of being “black.”
Among other things, this means that we must be willing to be told that we’re “acting white” or that we’re “not black enough”, realizing that the people who think in these terms are caught in the race trap along with the rest of our culture.
To let go of being “black” means taking pride in dressing respectably, using proper English, and having ambitions beyond “fitting in” instead of playing along with the stereotypes about how “black” people dress or talk or act.
To let go of being “black” means abiding by the law, using good judgment when choosing what to do or say, and having the courage to stand out from those who stubbornly refuse to let go of “blackness.”
To let go of being “black” means rising above my circumstances instead of using them as an excuse for why I can never hold down a job, or finish school, or get out of the drug trade, or be successful in life.
To let go of being “black” means realizing that my actions can either feed the racist attitudes of others or severely weaken the validity of those attitudes.
As I express these thoughts, I can’t help but reflect on the civil rights era in American history and the example that it provides. The civil rights movement succeeded in changing our nation’s conscience regarding its treatment of African-Americans because of predetermined choices that were made by Dr. King and his followers, who refused to play into the stereotypes that mainstream culture had about African-Americans.
Contrary to what we’ve seen recently in response to the events in Ferguson and in Baltimore, Dr. King and his followers transcended their circumstances by responding peacefully instead of committing violent acts and then blaming “the white man” for their actions. In essence, they put their best foot forward even while their oppressors were putting forth their worst. The nonviolent response by Dr. King and his followers in the face of inhumane treatment reflected the best of what African-Americans can be, appealing to the hearts and minds of mainstream America in an unprecedented manner.
To me, the civil rights movement provides a critical lesson that our culture – especially “black” culture – would do well to learn. As long as some of us insist on playing the role that the culture has assigned to “black” people, we cannot expect the so-called “racist” attitudes of mainstream America toward “black” people to change.
As long as so many of us are validating the stereotypes about “black people” through the negative behaviors and attitudes that we display, we cannot expect the culture at large to be eager to champion our rights and our freedoms.
On the contrary, if we were to make a commitment to being the best human beings that we can be – in spite of how others may treat us – then we will appeal to the collective conscience of others in our society, and we will see their attitudes toward us begin to change.
The first step in this journey is to let go of being “black” . . . Yet there are additional steps, which I intend to comment on in my next post.