The walk that changed my life
I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I hate how much time I spend on various sites daily (screen time down 4% this week!) but I love some of the content you can find on numerous pages. It will make you laugh. It can even make you cry. What I like most is that some of it really makes me reflect on my way of thinking. Sometimes people simply sum things up better than I ever could. Enter Emmanuel Acho.
Emmanuel is a former NFL linebacker turned Fox Sports analyst. He found success on the field playing at the highest level of the game and now he is finding success off the field. Most notably, for me, is his Youtube series entitled “Uncomfortable conversations with a black man”. In this series, he sits down with a variety of different people to have conversations surrounding race. A clip from one of his conversations has been running through my head for weeks now. Take 50 seconds and watch the clip here.
Am I afraid of white people? No, I have positive interactions with Caucasians almost every day. My girlfriend is white. I have close friends who are white. That doesn’t change the fact that one negative interaction, at any time in any place, can change the entire course of my life. Water and electricity. My main goal, every time I venture out into the world, is to make it home to my family. This is exactly why I live cautiously.
I’ll never forget the day I met Casey Carr. It was just another Monday and I was finishing up my last coaching session that morning. I’ll never forget the encounter because I’ll always remember how much I didn’t want to meet Casey Carr. It wasn’t because I didn’t like Casey; I had never met him before. It was because I’m always on guard, especially when random people engage me. All it takes is one negative encounter.
I was coaching on one end of the field and Casey was doing the same in the middle of the field. As I finished my session and began walking towards my car, I saw this middle-aged white man coming towards me. Thoughts started flying through my head. “What does he want?”, “ Why me?”, “Should I just run straight to my car?”. Long story short, it turned out to be a life-changing 3 minute conversation and one encounter I will never forget.
Why was I so opposed to engaging with him from the start? It didn’t have anything to do with his race. In fact, earlier that morning, I had similar anxious feelings when approached by a black coach. After having an even longer conversation with this guy, we ended up doing a podcast episode together! Race can definitely play a part in those uncomfortable feelings at times but a lot of the hesitancy lies in preconceived notions created way before any potential encounter.
Everyone’s world is shaped by their experiences. Some are positive and, unfortunately, some are negative. I would feel more comfortable in public places if I hadn’t had so many negative experiences in a variety of spaces. Whether it’s the teenagers who flashed the “white power” hand gesture at me while driving by in a popular shopping center or the older, white gentleman who kicked my car, spit on my window, and spewed racial epithets during a traffic incident; these experiences force me to stay on guard at all times.
I feel as though I have a hyper-awareness of everything around me now that I am getting older (31 years young!). Every time I walk into any public building, I immediately survey two things: 1. Where are the exits? And 2. How many black faces are nearby? If something happens, I need to know how to get out as fast as possible. And if I can’t get out, how many allies do I have that will at least vouch for me if something goes wrong. I’ll never sit with my back to the door in a restaurant (just ask my girlfriend). And I HATE SHOPPING.
Before, when I would walk into stores as a teenager, I never really noticed the “extra attention” my mom and I got while shopping. Now, my senses are on overdrive. I do everything I can to make it known that I have no intention of stealing anything. I don’t touch anything. I always make myself visible to the clerk. I make my trip in the store as short as possible. It’s a two-way street. I don’t want any issues and I don’t want anyone who works there to perceive me as a threat.
Why would I be perceived as a threat you may ask? Because I am a 6'1, black male with wild hair and a scruffy beard who enjoys wearing sweatpants and a hoodie on the regular. I don’t wear my hood to be cool; I wear it because it makes me feel comfortable and at ease. It makes me feel as though I can hide from the world a bit and just do what I need to do to get home. I’m sure Trayvon Martin felt the same way. Many people reading this may say I don’t look threatening at all. Many of those people also probably know me beyond the few articles I’ve written.
Random strangers walking down a dark street at night don’t know that I graduated Cum Laude with a business degree. The lady in the parking garage walking in front of me to her car doesn’t know that I’m a business owner and philanthropist. All they see is a black man in a country that has historically villainized those that look like me. I don’t have time to explain all of my positive attributes in a 10 second interaction. So I do everything I can to disarm them. I cross the street whenever I anticipate a potential negative interaction. I slow down when walking behind women in order to not be perceived as a threat. Water and electricity. At the end of the day, I just want to make it home to my family.
Casey first introduced me to the idea of a walk about six months ago. He’s written a bit about it on his blog. I’ll admit, I was skeptical at first because I’ve never really been a big fan of walking without a purpose but I figured I would give it a shot. My mind was quickly transformed. Our first walk was with myself, Casey, and a guy I had never met before (Johnathan Brabson if you wanted to know). After about five minutes, I realized there most definitely was a purpose to all of this. We walked and talked about everything we could think of. We discussed a variety of topics, from sports to business to racial injustice, and considered how they all tie together.
The conversation wasn’t planned. There wasn’t a moderator to keep us on subject. We just walked and talked. Walden University psychologists put out a study that explores how walking and talking can elevate your mood and satisfaction levels. I’ll admit, I didn’t read the whole thing but the premise directly collates with the purpose of our walks. Our walks were disarming. They were comfortable. It was easier to share my true thoughts because the environment was natural and relaxed. We were having tough conversations in easy settings.
It was the beginning of a relationship that has grown into more walks and more meetings discussing how we can have a greater impact on society. Recently, I found a way to combine a walk with a greater community impact and I’m confident that the results can be phenomenal. With that, I’ll introduce you to Greg Jackson.
If you don’t know Greg then you should get to know him. He is the founder of the non-profit organization, Heal Charlotte. I got to know Greg after hearing him speak at a Juneteenth celebration in Uptown Charlotte. His words were powerful and his message resonated with me. I spoke with Greg a number of times and started doing fundraising work with Heal Charlotte shortly after. I’ve gotten more involved with the organization throughout the year and I’ve been amazed at the impact we’ve been able to have.
Heal Charlotte works in a number of low-income communities throughout the area. They have a variety of programs that help these underserved areas. One of those programs is a community cleanup. Greg recently partnered with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department to organize a community cleanup in one of the neighborhoods. His idea was to bring police cadets, who will be working in these areas once they graduate, together with local residents to create better relationships between law enforcement and the community.
The mission is simple: eliminate implicit bias. Develop relationships early on so that police officers and community members aren’t operating based off of stereotypes of one another. The community cleanup was an experience I wasn’t used to but something I was proud to take part of. I showed up at a parking lot hotel full of 30–40 white males, some in uniform but most in plain clothes. If I didn’t know the objective of the day then I probably would have turned around immediately. We split up into groups and began walking down the street picking up anything we see. Some carrying trash bags, others using their trash pickers to fill the bags.
Having conversations with random people, outside of soccer and business, isn’t always my strong suit. But as the walk went on, I began to talk to a few different cadets and found that we had a few things in common. One cadet played baseball at the professional level so we discussed his journey. One guy grew up in Charlotte so we both know the area well. Each conversation naturally flowed into another conversation with someone else as people joined in. We simply walked, talked, and laughed about how many Four Lokos we found.
None of that would have happened without a simple walk. The police helped us understand who they are and why they do what they do. The conversations we had will hopefully build a better sense of trust within the community. It’s not going to change everything after just one cleanup but the hope is that we can continue to develop these events and grow these relationships.
The Ongoing Battle
Prejudices. We all have them, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. If it weren’t for Casey being such an amiable human being, my prejudices would have stopped me from having a meaningful interaction with an amazing person. We have to be able to acknowledge that race plays a huge part in our society and, ultimately, in our interactions with others. We can’t ignore the past and hope to change the future. Our country has an ugly past when it comes to race relations but moving on without comprehensively addressing the issues isn’t progress.
I often get asked why I am so focused on the past. Our current president is 74 years old. Our president-elect is 78. These men grew up during Jim Crow. Their formative years were shaped by the Civil Rights movement. We aren’t THAT far removed from the ugliness that once was. Race relations may have improved since then but it is still an uphill battle for many. It’s still unsettling to see a confederate flag. At this point, the American flag conjures up the same type of emotions. Weaponized symbols of hate that make it difficult to know who is an ally and who isn’t. I need you to understand why I’m cautious. I have to make it home at night.
I don’t need you to be someone who “doesn’t see color”. I hate that saying. It’s a lie. I know you mean well when you say it and I understand what you’re trying to convey but it’s untrue and somewhat insulting. I need you to acknowledge that I am black. I need you to acknowledge what it means for me to be black in a country that historically has mistreated my race. I need you to shed your preconceived notions about myself and those who look like me so we can make progress. And it’s not all on you. I have to do the same. I understand it’s hard. Water and electricity. But moving forward cautiously is better than not moving forward at all.