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The View from Under Our Skin

When I wrote the post that went viral after the Ferguson grand jury decision was announced, it opened a lot of doors with my teammates. Many players and coaches, black and white, told me, “That’s what I was thinking; I just didn’t know how to say it.”

Ferguson wasn’t just Ferguson. It was America. It was the symbol of so many racial conflicts over the months—each with different sets of circumstances, all of them prompting strong responses among blacks and whites.

It’s hard to follow current events closely during the NFL season. Football can be like a bottomless pit, consuming everyone involved for six months. Ferguson, though, was something none of us could get away from. I suspect this was true for most Americans. The nature of the tragedy galvanized the attention of people who would’ve otherwise been wrapped up in their own work and daily pursuits. It was constantly on the news, from August (when Michael Brown was killed) through November (when a grand jury decided there wasn’t enough evidence to indict Darren Wilson).

Starting the Conversation 

For us ballplayers—in my case, on the New Orleans Saints—some things are still hard to talk about, no matter how close we become during training camp and the regular season. As the saying goes: If you want to keep friends, never talk about religion or politics—or race.

But my post opened the conversation among us.

Even if we didn’t agree totally—and we often didn’t—we could at least express our views and hear from each other. I heard every kind of opinion from all sides of the spectrum. But it was encouraging that almost every response became a dialogue.

Sometimes we had to agree to disagree, but only after honest back-and-forth discussion. Talking about these issues is the first step to understanding and healing.

The feedback I received from the public via Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail mirrored what I’d heard from my friends and teammates. One person, identifying as an atheist, commented at the end of my post. He thanked me for my words, which he truly appreciated—“minus the part about God.”

I appreciated his response and told him so.

But there can never be a “minus the part about God” if we want real solutions.

Racism’s Root

Here’s what I’ve come to believe: At the root of racism is a flawed view of ourselves.

Racism is based on an elevation of our own talents, physical characteristics, and DNA—which we inherited by no choice or merit of our own—over someone else’s. It’s an assumption that the other person is different and therefore we are better. It’s an attitude that says, “I represent the norm; you are the variation, the outlier, the odd one.”

It’s wrong, of course—not just morally, but factually. We all—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and every other ethnicity—are 99.9 percent the same. We all predominantly share the same DNA. We all are human.

All the Same 

I recently had an appointment with a dermatologist. I sat in the examination room and checked my iPhone as I waited for the doctor to come in. After a short wait, I heard the customary knock. The door opened slowly, and in walked my new dermatologist.

I’m not sure what I expected, but the doctor turned out to be a brown-haired white woman a little older than me. We exchanged background information for a few minutes. She was very knowledgeable and knew just what to do to help me.

At the end of the visit, I asked her a question about a specific hair product she’d recommended. I must’ve known it was a borderline dumb question, so I prefaced it with, “Excuse my ignorance, but with these products, does it matter if you’re black or white?”

What she said next reminded me of what I already knew but constantly need to be reminded of.

“Hair is just hair,” she said. “It’s all about texture, and that depends on the melanin in your skin. Under a microscope, all skin and hair follicles are basically the same. The only difference is the amount of melanin. Curl types and hair properties such as texture, density, elasticity, and porosity can vary across the spectrum of skin tone. So really, hair is about the individual, not the individual’s race.”

It’s amazing that melanin—the pigment that gives human skin, hair, and eyes their color—has caused so much pain and tragedy in America.

Under our skin, we are all the same—flesh, blood, and spirit. We are commonly human. All of us are human beings created by and for God.


Editors’ note: This is an adapted excerpt from Benjamin Watson’s new book Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race—and Getting Free from the Fears and Frustrations that Divide Us (Tyndale, 2015). Tune in here next Tuesday, November 24, at 8:30 p.m. EST (7:30 p.m. CST) as Darrin Patrick talks with Watson about his experiences and insights as a Christian and an African American. Head to Twitter afterward and interact directly with Watson (@BenjaminSWatson) using the hashtag #UnderOurSkin. Then pick up a copy of the book for yourself, your small group, and even your whole church. Talk about it with believers with different experiences; this guide can help. May God help us enjoy counter-cultural community together.

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