When was the last time you have an uncomfortable conversation about race? For many, even against the backdrop of 2020 protests surrounding Black Lives Matter and ending police brutality, the answer to that is still never. Today’s virtual conversation hosted by Angel City Football Club (ACFC), featuring Courtney Carter, Cobi Jones, Jessica Mendoza, Jonathan Lewis and Lolita Lopez, opened up the week of hour-long discussions aimed at opening dialogue about race equity in sports and media. It wasn’t short of stories with a common thread: otherness. Everyone had a moment to share about when they realized they were “other.” While there were different perspectives about the purpose of sport to transcend race and otherness, one thing became clear, sports is a perfect platform to raise the level of honest conversations surrounding the things that still make us feel uncomfortable.
Otherness. What does it mean to you? Did it mean the first time you realized you didn’t look or sound or act like the people around you? Did it mean you didn’t get a job or a date because of the way you appeared? Was it your actions that seemed different than your peers? For many, it’s a combination. I didn’t realize I was other until I went to school in suburban NJ. I had moved there from the melting pot of New York City. My first day of kindergarten in white suburban NJ was just the beginning of a downward spiral into racism. The kindergarten teacher was simply taking our attendance. My name tripped her up over and over until she asked “do you have a nickname?” Innocent as it was, the question led to a snowball effect. Kids were soon pointing out how my hair, skin and nails were different than theirs. When I started playing soccer (as the only girl on the team) otherness took on a whole new dimension.
But, the thing about otherness is just when you think you’ve got it down, that you’re an expert in race equity, that you know what the other others are thinking, life knocks you on your head. We have a way of closing ourselves off from having these uncomfortable conversations with each other, especially as we get older and assume we know it all. I learned of my own failings about a month ago. Thanks to my friend G, I won’t ever look at someone and assume I know their story. His level of otherness came from an immigrant’s perspective – not fitting into any category culturally or economically no matter how he looked or sounded, because it didn’t resonate with the groups around him. He was not considered Latino even though he is from South America, and he wasn’t white because he didn’t speak English. He wasn’t wealthy, but was bullied and mugged because he had McDonald’s once a month and his classmates thought he was rich. He and I had an uncomfortable but incredible conversation that opened my eyes. Try it. I knew G for three years before we had this talk and I’m so glad we did. Sharing his experience as an other on multiple levels with me empowers me to be a better ally, to be a better friend, to be a better person.
Sports, has a way of bridging differences towards a common goal, but it also has a way of changing the focus and avoiding the tough stuff, like the autofocus feature on your DSLR. You gain so much more when you switch the the manual function, changing your perspective and making it a clearer picture. There is no shortcut to these conversations and while what initially drew me to write about sports was that common goal, that “we’re better together, than divided” attitude, sometimes we forget to have the uncomfortable conversations that help us all to grow. So perhaps a team wins a championship and brings home a trophy, but did they truly gain what really matters in this life? Talk to each other. Talk to your teammates, your friends, your neighbors, your partner. Perhaps you can gain something too from having just one uncomfortable conversation.
I’m really excited to see Angel City FC leading the way in this journey by opening up the communication lines. There are still three more events to come this week and Women United will be discussing them all. We can’t wait.