Hoops Artist

Gus Gauntlett

Breaking White Silence in the NBA
by Gustav Gauntlett
Featured in SLAM 201, September 2016

There are 44 white, American-born*, players in the NBA, can you name them all?  That’s under 10% of the league while representing 62% of the US population (2014 US Census).  On the flip side, Black men make up 6% of the country’s population and 78% of the league’s players.  We all see it, we all think about it, but how often do we talk about this glaring disparity out loud and in depth?

*This story focuses on American-born white players because the “white” players from Europe have a very different experience & understanding of race and racism in the United States. 

I am an anti-racist organizer with two collectives in NYC: Breaking White Silence, and European Dissent which is an affinity group within the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a leading anti-racism training and organizing institution for 35 years.  I operate as white in this country.  I say “operates as white” because I did not choose this as my race, but I understand and accept my implicit role in its existence as the privileged norm in this country.  My ancestry is Swedish.  The same way my fellow “white” people have ancestors from actual countries, not a placed called Whiteland.

In a charged time where discriminatory policing policies like “Stop and Frisk,” coupled with a number of individual officers carrying out brutality on unarmed black men and women is frequently front page news, often by the hands of white people, I had to ask white NBA players about their experience in a league where they are a massive minority.  What are these players’ role as white men to speak up publicly against racism? And more importantly, what would that look like?

My first email to SLAM pitching this article received a beautifully honest response from the captain of the squad, aka Editor in Chief, Ben Osborne:  

“I'm intrigued by the idea but VERY skeptical that players will tell you anything worthwhile if they answer your question at all. Have you spoken with anyone/done any research that implies these guys will discuss this?”

His on-point skepticism is based on societal truth.  When was the last time we heard white NBA players speaking publicly about race?  Snap, when was the last time you heard any white people speak publicly about racism and white people’s role in breaking it down within ourselves and our country’s systems? 

Luckily, SLAM is fearless.

This journey began on February 8th, only 2 months to have these conversations before the season ended…and you know nobody trying to talk about whiteness during playoff time!

Each of the white NBA players I spoke with shared a similar sentiment that their teammates are their brothers, basketball being a racial bridge of sorts.  This is love!  Raising questions about life off the court is what brought us to another level.

“I think we can understand more.  I think we can open our minds…” beautifully said by Clippers veteran big man Cole Aldrich when asked: What is the role of white people in this social activism or athlete activism movement?

I don't really speak on anything that I don't know the whole issue or the whole all the details on it, because the last thing you want to do is, you know, to say something and not know everything about it.”

Cole’s words echo countless conversations I’ve had with white people.  There is a strong hesitation to address race out of a nervousness of not knowing how to do it the “right” way.  What does this nervousness do to us?  A history of a minuscule percentage of white people speaking up in society tells me that this uneasiness causes silence.  And when it comes to racism, silence is death.

Many African-American NBA players have used their platform as athletes in America’s fastest growing league to bring awareness to this callous cologne of racism that coats our country.  LeBron headlines the most recent class of NBA athletivists (athlete + activist), dawning the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt in Brooklyn just after Eric Garner was killed by police using a rear naked choke hold in Staten Island.  LeBron’s beautiful gesture sparked entire teams to wear the shirts, creating multi-racial groups of men standing in solidarity with the movement in the streets led by women and men of color.  If LeBron didn’t start this movement, would any white NBA players have taken it upon themselves to make a statement?

JJ Redick:  “I’m not necessarily going to speak out on social issues because I don’t think if it came form me it would be authentic, do you know what I mean by that?…I mean we all experience hardships, but I’m saying like in terms of racial profiling, police, district gerrymandering with politicians, that’s not something I’ve had to deal with in my life.”

Lou Amundson, who wore the “I Can’t Breathe” shirt as LeBron’s teammate in 2014, offered a similar view.

“Although I have experienced just being around these guys, I don’t have experience, I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America…I think my ideas are a little bit divorced from that idea.”

JJ and Lou bring up a substantially shared mindset within hundreds of white folks I try to organize with:  How can white people be the leaders in speaking out against racial hardships that we often do not experience?

Lou:  “… but i still think it is important for white players, and European players to advocate for that kind of change, for you know equality and speak out against police brutality and these type of things when they happen we speak to a different demographic than my Black teammates do. Yeah, it's important I think when you talk about stuff like that.  All the stuff going on with terrorism in the Muslim community, same idea there, you need Muslims to speak out about those extremists that are doing those things.  So I agree same thing here, it's good for us to speak to our demographic, people that are going to look up to us, as that's just as important.”

Lou Amundsen drops gems, and much respect for shining light on the Muslim communities who are speaking out against violent extremists.  While we do not experience the same hardship of oppression, we do look like, and receive the same privileges of, the people controlling the oppressive systems.  Even if we don’t agree with those people in power, we do share many similar experiences as being white in this country.  As much as we don’t like to admit it, we have a lot more shared experience with these people than with The King in Cleveland.

After my first round of interviews in Philly, a white Public Relations rep from the 76ers pulls me aside and asks what this article is about.  I keep it real:  I’m asking white NBA players about race and social activism.  He hits me with: “These guys are used to being asked how their ankle is doing.” 

I know chief, I know.  That’s why SLAM magazine exists.  We do not fear breaking thru the booboo chatter.  I ended my brief chat with the PR guy by reminding him that “you might be surprised how much players are willing to talk about these issues, all you have to do is ask.”

This journey gets a boost from the Hornets, aka the mecca of white NBA players, and the Pelicans.  Tyler Hansbrough, Spencer Hawes, Frank Kaminksy, and Cody Zeller, Ryan Anderson, and Luke Babbitt:  I feel like I’m at YMCA in Martha’s Vineyard.  Hawes, dubbed at the Rucker as “You Rang?” brings a beautifully important reminder about speaking out on anything controversial in this league:

“I think it's up to the individual and i think guys do have that platform and they have the right to express themselves and also you know I think guys know when they do they know that they're kinda they're exposing themselves for criticism I think, right or wrong.

Ryan Anderson echoes Hawes’ caution.

I’ve tried to be really careful of that on my, you know, when I do public things…..So for a white player to speak out, you have to be very careful what you say, and what you stand for, because you’re not really speaking for, I don’t think black people would relate to you, I don’t think they would relate because of what our world, and what the United States you know, in the past century, well obviously it’s lasted longer than that.”

The brave and loving Ryan Anderson just dropped the biggest “you know” in basketball history!  What do you think that “you know” means?  I’ve got a million answers for that “you know,” but I’m going to leave that one for you to meditate on.  It definitely has lasted longer than a century, and that “you know” happens every day in 2016.  And when these “you knows” happen, people of color always stand up and speak out.  Do white people support?  Yes, many do, including these, and other, white NBA players.  But do white people step out of their comfort zones and take leadership in organizing with other white people to challenge these “you knows?”  And do we as fans or media pundits ever expect them to do so?

The day after I built with Ryan Anderson, the Nets media department let me know my credential status is no longer valid, a.k.a. media access Mutumbo finger wave.  I’ll keep the details in the cut, but recognize that asking about more than players’ ankles has corporate side effects.

Disappointed?  Yes.  Surprised?  Sadly no.  Billion dollar industries and addressing white people’s role in racism mix like quinoa and gummy bears.

Supreme respect and appreciation for the bravery of Cole Aldrich, JJ Redick, Lou Amundson, Tyler Hansbrough, Spencer Hawes, Luke Babbitt, and Ryan Anderson who were open to share their experience when they could have dodged me with any number of excuses. 

I believe it is paramount for white folks to address racism directly with each other.  This is a direct call from people of color-led organizing groups.  It is not the job of black and brown folks to both experience oppression from white people, and then teach us about our own racism.

In the words of Malcolm X when asked how white folks could be of service:

“Let sincere white individuals find all other white people they can who feel as they do—and let them form their own all-white groups, to work trying to convert other white people who are thinking and acting so racist. Let sincere whites go and teach non-violence to white people! We will completely respect our white co-workers. They will deserve every credit.”

*ACCOUNTABILITY NOTE:  I got paid $599 to write this article.  I donated 20% of that to Artists Co-Creating Real Equity (ACRE) , a multi-racial organizing group I build with in NYC started by 3 amazing people:  Sarita Covington, Maria Bauman, and Nathan Trice.  I believe it is paramount for white folks to share the resources we receive when doing anything involved with anti-racist work because we have been benefitting from the privileges we receive in a racist society for centuries.