It seems every new day during these protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, police brutality, and white supremacy, that there’s a statement by some company, including many sports teams, expressing their sympathy. These statements have been mostly embarrassing either from the vagueness and emptiness of the sentiment or the irony of certain brands standing against racism while being guilty of discrimination themselves.
The farce was exemplified by the Washington football team tweeting a black square in association of the symbolic #BlackOutTuesday, which was created as a suggestion for allies to go silent on social media while promoting black voices, to reflect on recent events, and to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. The irony of course is that a team named after a racial slur was pretending to stand for racial justice.
Washington wasn’t alone in being hypocritical. The San Francisco 49ers joined in with a message of their own, and then they were quickly reminded by many people on social media about the role they played in making sure that Colin Kaepernick, who protested police brutality, was exiled from the NFL, which put out a similar statement.
These brands, teams, and leagues, are in a delicate position. With the intensity of the moment, it would be criminal for them to remain silent. Silence would send a message to their black audience and consumers that they don’t care or don’t support the movement in a world where people tend to identify with the corporations they support. Consumers are already skeptical and question whether these same companies actually stand behind their lofty progressive ideals or if they’re only happy to profit from that black audience without having an obligation of support to the people.
The problem is that a lot of these companies are also perpetrators of the same racism that they have to speak out against. If not in the most overt ways like the 49ers or Washington, then by actions like banning peaceful protests, creating and sustaining a system where the labor of the sport is mostly black but the front office staff and coaches are white, and helping to fund the same police departments that their black consumers are victimized by. Not sending out a message indicts them, and sending out a message with their histories indicts them even further.
The middle-ground, which has still been criticized roundly, seems to be for teams to release statements that vaguely mention the ambiguous goals of racial equality and unity, without mentioning the problem of police brutality, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Black Lives Matter. That way, these companies can speak out and appease their black audience without ostracizing white people who may be against the protests or the police. The opportunity to post a black square on social media in supposed support without even having to make a statement has then been a godsend to many of these teams and leagues.
The opportunity to post a black square on social media in supposed support without even having to make a statement has then been a godsend to many of these teams and leagues.
What these corporations seem to either be misunderstanding or purposely overlooking is that this situation is not one that can be solved by making the most comfortable statement. The people aren’t asking for empty support; they’re asking for a reform to the status quo. The demand isn’t for sentimentality, but sensitivity and courage.
In an essay about Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vladimir Nabokov made an important distinction between sentimentality and sensitivity:
“We must distinguish between '’sentimental' and '’sensitive.'’ A sentimentalist may be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Sentimental Rousseau, who could weep over a progressive idea, distributed his many natural children through various poorhouses and workhouses and never gave a hoot for them. A sentimental old maid may pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician may remember Mother's Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Stalin loved babies. Lenin sobbed at the opera, especially at a performance of '’Traviata.'’ A whole century of authors praised the simple life of the poor, and so on.”
The embarrassing nature of so many of the statements put out by companies in the sporting world is the fault of no one else but the companies themselves. Most of them have profited from black athletes and consumers, while staying distanced from the issues that affect the people or feeding into the situation. At most they have been sentimental about the problems, exclaiming their positions of being in support of equality, without actually being willing to reckon with themselves about what role they play in the status quo. They’ve willingly restricted their ideals to nothing but words.
Any company looking for an easy way to signal to their black audience and workers that they are in support of the protests and the greater movement are going to find that mission nearly impossible. There is no easy way, there is no suitable ambiguous statement that is going to do the trick.
The only possible route forward, if these companies really believe that black lives matter and in the notion of racial equality, is through self-reckoning and to do the hard work of change, inclusion, and support. It might be cliché at this stage, but the quote of Angela Davis saying that it is not enough to be nonracist in a racist society, but one must be anti-racist, is still very true.
The cynic in me doesn’t truly believe that much change will come from this moment in terms of teams, leagues, and other sporting entities, addressing their own failures. This isn’t the first time an event like this has occurred, and these same entities have been challenged by their black workers and fans before. It still feels like all they want is to just say the right thing. But what is clear now is that while sentimentality may work for the companies, the people are not falling for those same tricks. The line has been drawn now, that unless the sensitivity can be shown through action, these companies are all part of the problem.
My immigrant father was trying to navigate life in a new and scary world. And I was hellbent on making things as difficult as possible.
Originally Appeared on GQ