Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

It’s Time: Former Huskers Have a Conversation on Race in America

July 17, 2020

This story originally appeared in the Hail Varsity 2020 Nebraska Football Yearbook. Never miss a Yearbook, or any issue of the magazine, with a subscription to Hail Varsity.

It’s time we have uncomfortable conversations.

For those of you that know me as J-Mitch, I would like to introduce you to Joshua Mitchell. Most Husker faithful had no idea who I was until I became my outspoken self to the public eye. Most of our fans loved the fire, while a few always had something to say. When the topic of athlete compensation came up, the tide changed.

“You should be grateful you’re on a scholarship. I would love to have my school paid for.”

I always wanted to respond but I knew that would label me as another angry, ungrateful Black man. There lies the problem in this country; telling Black people how grateful we should be for all that we have accomplished. As if hard work and dedication had nothing to do with every success we have achieved.

John S. Peterson
2014 Hail Varsity cover portrait of Josh Mitchell

Turn on a football game on any given Saturday or Sunday. How about basketball? Maybe look at the Billboard Top 100 or open TikTok. Black culture dominates these spaces, but don’t let us step out of line and speak on business, politics, fair education, police brutality, etc. We’re told we should just stay in our place and continue to entertain white America.

I’ll admit I was a little naïve coming to Nebraska from Southern California. I grew up surrounded by people of different races, ethnicities and religions. The fanbase showed the Black athletes love, my teammates became my brothers, we were winning games and everything was great. Then came the 2012 presidential campaign and Barack Obama was running for his second term. I saw the immediate divide in the locker room, I heard some of our coaches’ comments and I quickly found out I was living in a red state. Most of the comments didn’t have much to do with Democrats or Republicans, but more about how much “WE are giving THEM.” I wasn’t a voter yet, so I decided to just leave that topic alone, but I paid close attention.

Once Obama was re-elected, the tension slowly faded. We were back to business as usual. That’s typically how it goes in this country. We get sick of hopping on “trends” and want our “normal” lives back. Over the past few weeks, I have received more direct messages, phone calls and texts from former teammates and friends expressing their love and asking how they can help in the fight for equality, police reform and policy change. I think many have no idea what the Black Lives Matter movement is really about. While I appreciate everyone who has reached out, I just ask not to let this be another trendy moment that fades away once we get back to our “normal” lives.

I am fortunate enough to have met my best friends and brothers in college. They are some of the most intellectual, open and honest people I know. I welcome you into a small glimpse of what we call “The Island,” a group chat that I know includes a few of your favorite and most-respected former Huskers.

It’s time for us to have those uncomfortable conversations.

The following conversation happened June 7 via Zoom. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Kenny Bell (WR, 2010–14): My biggest thing is that I want to have progress, right? I’ve got so much pent up frustration, bro. Just so much pent up anger. I’m sure a lot of you are feeling that. The realization that some people, some white people, really don’t like Black people. They only like you, right, because you scored on Saturdays. That’s hit me pretty heavy. Realizing how many people never really supported you as a human being. I’m speaking from my own personal experience, but I think I can speak for guys in this group. That hurt. Realizing that people didn’t really support you and your brothers on your team. They just wanted you to do well for the program. That forever hurts. So, what I want to do is I want to figure out what progress [is], right? I know it’s exhausting to educate, but I think that’s the only other answer. Anybody else with a better plan of action?

Will Compton (LB, 2008–12): Ultimately, I want to be a good example for, I guess, as a white person, trying to learn and listen. Right now, I listen to everybody and me sitting here, my heart pounds a little bit because you’re kind of nervous to navigate any kind of conversation like that … Why would I want to say, “How are you doing in this?” because it’s already going on … Like you said, sometimes you have no idea what you don’t know.

An example being this week in our group chat, I’m asking about a cause I can go to and that could be ignorant on my part becauseI should have already known. At the same time, this is a group where we’re always talking so I’m going to go and say this is a spot where I can probably grab one thing without saying something too soon. Another example is posting the picture of those cops kneeling when my intentions and my heart (are) good, but then J-Mitch just calls and we’re in the group chat and I get checked, I take it down.

Josh Mitchell (CB, 2010–14): I was going to fire you up, Comp. I was.

John S. Peterson
Josh Mitchell and Ameer Abdullah lead the Huskers ontp the field before taking on Minnesota in 2014.

Will: I get checked and that’s fine. I take it down and I own up to it in a minute because I also want to be an example that you can stumble in this thing and continue to progress and find the best reasons forward. At the same time, I don’t want
to wait for perfect times or to say the right thing until I have everything just to kind of save face and look good doing it because progress in anything is going to show a lot of stumbles, speedbumps, because we’re going to be doing it together. For me, I’ll be having conversations with people back home and I’ve got to approach it in a way that by the end of this conversation (I want to) shift the perspective, not meet confrontation with more confrontation because if I do that, especially with a white person, we’re just going to argue and then they could dismiss me. For me, my goal is I need a subtle shift in perception. And then from you guys, it’s learning and knowing what I need to do.

Ameer Abdullah (RB, 2011– 14): Exactly. You need to be more proactive. You hit it right on the head that it’s not so much us not understanding the intentions. We know it’s coming from a good place … This has been a habitual thing that’s been existing for a while. Now it’s like, could you take it upon yourself to educate? I can’t meet you there because if I try to capture how I’m feeling from all the stress and oppression and the systemic ways that I feel it every day, you still won’t understand. You’ll never understand, so it’s on you right now to go watch people’s stories, see if they’re posting books. For you to go find out what’s going on systemically that’s disenfranchising Black people and then from there, holding people around you accountable to the facts. When it’s more like, “What can I do? How can I help?” It’s like yo, man, I don’t really feel like you’re connected to the movement right now. We all know that everyone must be connected to it at a deeper level. I know you’re connected to it considering these are some of your best friends right here right now, and if that’s really what it is about for you, then you will take it upon yourself to continue to educate yourself without always leaning on us to do so because we already have a million other things coming at us right now. We need more people being proactive.

Quincy Enunwa (WR, 2010– 13): Man, it’s hard. The biggest thing about this is, it goes back to what I’ve been talking about a lot. It’s mental health. I don’t want to dominate the conversation talking about mental health, but I think that at the end of the day there are so many things that we don’t learn as kids, right? I had this conversation in the group chat. We kind of go through life and society props us up to be the best people and we never really learn how to be good neighbors. If you can’t empathize with your fellow man when they’re telling you that they’re hurt? That’s the conversation. Like, “Aw, man, Black people are complaining but look at the white people.” It’s like, “Bro, why does that matter?” At the end of the day, if I’m coming to you with something, take the time to pay attention to what I’m saying, and I can promise you that I can show you facts. I can show you the facts to back up my claim, but even in the moment when I’m bringing something to you that’s emotionally charged, I’m telling you something like, “This is hurting me.” That people can even look at that and not be like, “Damn, let me try to see why you’re feeling that way and try to understand,” and they’re like, “No, eff that. My reality is the only reality that matters.” It doesn’t even matter what you’re saying. I know what I’m seeing. I know my experience because there is no way you’re also experiencing that.

If you can’t empathize with your fellow man when they’re telling you that they’re hurt? That’s the conversation.
– Quincy Enunwa

When people say there is no such thing as racism, how do you know that? And when people say that, how can you honestly sit here and say there is no racism when racism doesn’t affect you? You might feel discriminated against at times, but the racist systems that are in this country that have started from slavery? Four-hundred years ago there was slavery and you want to talk about the disenfranchisement of Black people, you talk about the new Jim Crow, you talk about prison systems. You can just see how Black people have been disadvantaged since the beginning of this country. How can you even argue against that? You can just see there is no way. If I have a grandparent that was in World War II and a white person has a grandparent that was in World War II, I promise you that my grandparent and that person, they’re not going to end up in the same spot. He would have come back from that war and not been treated the same as that person. He wouldn’t have been able to go to the same colleges, he wouldn’t have been able to go to the same stores, he wouldn’t have been able to go to the same anything.

Kenny: I mean, damn, World War II, how about Vietnam?

Quincy: Yeah, you can’t go anywhere, right? Martin Luther King Jr. died in the ‘60s. There are people alive that were alive then. If racism was happening then, those people are still alive.

Taariq Allen (WR, 2011–15): And there’s no change.

Quincy: It’s just interesting that people continue to deny the facts and deny the realities that have gone on and nobody wants to take a second to even listen right now. Nobody wants to listen.

Bill Frakes
Taariq Allen leads the Huskers onto the field prior to Nebraska’s 39-38 victory over Michigan State in 2015.

Tobi Okuyemi (DL, 2010–13): Kind of piggy-backing off of that, what I believe personally is that in this day and age, I’m happy to explain that to you but you don’t want to learn in the first place. You’re not interested in moving forward. I’m personally like those people can be addressed later and separately, but what I’m about right now is the people who are OK with saying it and believe there is a problem and want to address that problem. I want those people to use their voice to make it known and make a statement saying, “I believe that systemic racism is real. I believe police brutality is real and we need to come together and fix that.” I think that would illuminate how many people actually are for it and we need to get those people engaged. In however many years from now, we’re going to be talking about how our generation got engaged, organized via social media and we will be able to show our kids that when this was happening, we didn’t just take a passive approach. We were able to use these platforms to make how we feel known. That should be something you’re proud of, to be able to say, “Hey, I put it out in a public fashion that I’m not OK with how society is. We need to go forward.” The fact that some people can’t say that, I think that shows a lot. So, if you are believing that, you should say it because I take silence on this issue as that there isn’t a problem or you’re OK with the problem.

Ameer: Everything you just said Q and Tobi is spot on. People are just negligent to the issue, right? But this has been a revolving door that has been the same for a long time. People have always turned the cheek and looked the other way, like “Nah, that’s not real.” What is the step to mend that bridge? What is the step? How do you get people to understand? I think we are in an awakening period.

I live in Atlanta. There’s a protest that goes down my street every day. I was in a protest last week and it was a lot more white faces than I ever expected. I think we are making that marginal progress, but it is a great deal of Americans who just won’t acknowledge that. And some of those people that are still alive from the ’60s, they’re teaching that to a lot of their kids because you see it. Kids who go viral just saying ignorant things. Just dropping the N-bomb, hanging up dolls that look like Black people and stabbing them, I’ve seen it all. Just to back up what Q said with people always saying, “my reality matters more,” I was looking at this story of this lady and her son was in the police. A white lady. Her son came home, he was on duty, he didn’t have on his uniform and she was like, “What are you doing? You don’t have your uniform on?” He was like, “Mom, you’re crazy. Right now it’s crazy outside. If I wore
my uniform, I might get killed.” And she made a very emotional post saying, “See, this is bad right now. The fact that my son can get killed just because he’s wearing
a cop uniform is hatred and all that stuff.” A lot of the outcry and response to that was, “Yo, now imagine that’s the same thing Black people are saying.”

Kenny: Welcome.

Scott Bruhn
Quincy Enunwa and Ameer Abdullah at the 2014 Gator Bowl

Ameer: But you can’t take off your Black. You can take off your uniform, put on a mask, and become someone else, and that’s the blinders that Q was talking about. People can’t see that. And I’m kind of done. I’m going to be honest. I’ve removed myself from trying to make people see that. I think honestly, as Black people, and I’m not afraid to say this because it’s where I’m moving in my life right now, socioeconomically we need to gain socioeconomic independence on our own. We need to start moving and stop relying on white America to wake up. They’ll have to meet us there in the process because if we continue to wait for white, mainstream America to wake up and acknowledge racism, it’s 2020, to even acknowledge that it’s real, man, good luck. Good luck waiting for that progress, bro.

Taariq: I feel that. I feel that, bro.

Kenny: Don’t make me jump out of my car right now.

Josh: Ameer got me ready to roll.

Ameer: I say that not to be like a Civil War of segregation. I don’t think that’s needed. We must own ourselves. Let’s be honest. Black people don’t own any economic footing in this country. So, if they see us in the streets, they don’t give a shit if they kill us. We don’t have any money. That’s what it’s about. Until we unify and be like, “We’ve got to own ourselves.” Whether that’s entertainment, whether that’s growing our own food, whatever that is, however that manifests, it has to come in our mind. And one thing I posted recently is that we’re in a chicken-and-egg situation as a Black community. What comes first? Do you liberate yourself from the system, or do you liberate your mind first? Because you can liberate yourself from the system, but if you’re still a slave in your mind, you’re going to fail down the road. These are things people need to know. I know we’ve got voting coming up, man, and I vote, but I’ll be honest that I never vote and feel good. You know why? Because it’s no change without economics, bro. You can vote right wing or left wing, but at the end of the day, it’s the same bird. Those wings are on the same bird and they’re pulling this way and this way for so long but they’re really not going anywhere. How long are you guys willing to wait for this progress? For people to wake up? Do you really think that’s going to happen? Because this is about capitalism.

Kenny: No, is the answer. We’ve had the conversation about how hopeful we want to be but why? That’s where most, if not all of, the frustration comes from because we’re sitting here, like Tobi said, with people not even willing to acknowledge that racism exists.

Ameer: It’s 2020.

Kenny: Why even beat your head against a brick wall? I feel the frustration, man.

Taariq: Once COVID slows down, what’s it going to look like? Are people still going to be out here protesting? When I go back to my regular life, when I’ve got to wake up at 7 o’clock in the morning and I don’t really give a damn about what’s going on outside, I’m just trying to get to work, are we still going to care about that? For it to be one-and-done, to be silent, is doing it an injustice.

We’re trying to build a better world for ourselves, our kids
and future generations. If we just approach it the same way as we did in the past, kind of tiptoeing about it and not being direct, intentional and sustained about it, we’re going to get the same result.
– Tobi Okuyemi

Josh: History repeats itself. Unfortunately, we know that what’s going on now isn’t going to disappear tomorrow. We already know that’s not going to happen… I always say it, but it’s like a small glimpse into the world of a Black man. Are you going to fold when you’re tired of this shit? We’re still talking about this bullshit? Yes. Until it’s not bullshit no more, we’re going to talk about it.

Kenny: We have to talk about it.

Tobi: We’re trying to build a better world for ourselves, our kids and future generations. If we just approach it the same way as we did in the past, kind of tiptoeing about it and not being direct, intentional and sustained about it, we’re going to get the same result. I think the biggest thing is, we can try and get people to change their minds, but to me getting people that believe the right way but are scared about using their voice, getting them to be comfortable with that. I think that’s going to go a long way.

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