By Josh Meyer, Saint Michael’s College Men’s Basketball Coach
“We are all the leaves of one tree. We are all the waves of one sea.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
I glanced up from the huddle and there was an ocean of pain in the eyes of my partner. It was a look that I was familiar with, but this time it was much more pronounced. Our 4 and 8 year-old daughters were playing behind the team’s bench. They had returned to a carefree state and were seemingly unaware of what had just transpired, prior to the start of the basketball game at the University of Vermont on November 4, 2017. As people of color, the girls will continue to be involved in an abusive relationship with racism, similar to what my Haitian-American partner has experienced her entire life and which I have avoided, due to my privileged white identity. Their innocence will inevitably be consumed by a racist system, which many fail to acknowledge exists
I have witnessed the cowardly monster do its harmful work to my loved ones in the shadows, using hegemonic tentacles to cast self-doubt about image, worth, and ability to pursue their dreams. On this particular day, the beast showed its ugly and typically concealed face to all who were in the crowded gymnasium. Micro-aggressions and subliminal messages were exchanged for rage, which rained down from a mostly white crowd onto our basketball team and members who were peacefully protesting the oppression of people of color by taking a knee during the national anthem. The hate in the gym was palpable and for a brief moment in time, the inescapable pain that people of color unfairly endure in this country, on a daily basis, was exposed.
My soul suffered a permanent and necessary scar during the UVM game and I will continue to cry as a result of the wound, even when the tears are not visible. I feel anger towards those who refuse to see the systemic racism that exists in all realms of our society. They express their disappointment with the team, citing increased opportunities for people of color, even though it is obvious that we are far from a place that offers justice and equality for all. It seems as though these individuals would prefer that oppressed people remain invisible. I am frustrated by those who are aware that racism exists and say they understand why the team carried out the protest, or apologize for what happened to the team, but choose to remain silent about it out of fear and to preserve their own interests.
My partner says this is the closest I will ever be to what a person of color feels, even though I know it will never come remotely near to what she and my daughters will experience on a daily basis. In a very small way, I can better relate to how she feels at the end of a day, where she has had to endure ignorance and inequality, as she looks at me and sees someone who can choose to avoid a burden that she and many others are forced to carry.
I am uplifted by the many people, from all backgrounds, who have reached out, taken a stand and demonstrated courage by supporting the actions of the student-athletes and our team. The overwhelming pride from people of color in the community demonstrates the importance of what the team did. Lifetimes of injustices allow for an acute awareness for how much bravery it takes to stand up to racism. This is obviously not a superficial attempt to garner attention, but an opportunity to use a platform and exercise their rights as citizens to make a statement that can lead to less oppression, which many seem fearful of. Since the UVM game, more than one college has decided not to play the anthem and did not provide any explanation. It is ironic that a team is attacked by many for having student-athletes take a knee, yet institutions who choose to not play the anthem at an event to silence a stand against injustice, can evade criticism or public demands for an explanation.
If taking a knee is merely a hollow trend, as some critics have claimed, why did the protest at the University of Vermont evoke so many strong emotions and passionate responses from all sides? The Saint Michael’s men’s basketball team and many others who have partaken in the movement have clearly stated that there is a deep respect for the great sacrifices that service people make, as well as an appreciation for a country that allows for patriotism in the form of peaceful protest. In fact, a significant number of team members have family who have served and are currently serving our nation in various capacities. Nonetheless, these explanations were not able to halt the anger and hate that was present on November 4, nor the many disappointed responses that have been received since. It seems as though words are falling upon deaf ears that are muted by fear, which is being nurtured by a false narrative around the meaning of the protest.
At Saint Michael’s, we strive to support our students as they find their voices within an educational environment that embraces social justice and the “moral and spiritual development of each individual.” These values are embedded within the College’s mission, as well as the Catholic faith and Edmundite tradition which guides it. This is what makes Saint Michael’s such a special community and a unique place for teaching, learning, and growth. The student-athletes on our team epitomize the Saint Michael’s mission and their courageous actions, which are driven by compassionate beliefs and echo the legacy of the Edmundites. These brave voices must not be blocked by a demand for silence by those who have the power to speak and to be listened to.
We must embrace the truth that racism is a disease that infects our entire society, as well as the pain that is associated with this reality. If we are truly a connected community and family, then our happiness depends upon a shared responsibility to alleviate each other’s suffering. We must start with the people who have experienced the most pain. Those who have been robbed of their lives, land, and freedoms for generations and who still fear for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, must be seen and heard. Silence, especially from those who have the option to do so as a result of their privilege, will only delay the process of healing our collective spirit.