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  • Writer's pictureDr. Benjamin J. Williams

Intent, Context, and Racial Reconciliation

Montrezl Harrell and Luka Doncic | © Getty Images, 2020.

Take a look at this fascinating segment on TNT's Inside the NBA. It has some mildly offensive language, for which I apologize. The discussion relates to some on-court comments from Montrezl Harrell to Luka Doncic. Pay attention to remarks by Shaquille O'Neal, Kenny Smith, Ernie Johnson, and Charles Barkley.

This interaction fascinated me on several levels.

Discussing Race and Reconciliation

First, we should note positively Harrell's class-act in recognizing the sensitivity of our society's moment and apologizing to Doncic for his comments. It's a reminder that two humans are still capable of reconciling without the intervention of policy shifts or major social outcry. Sometimes policy changes and social upheaval are necessary, but one-on-one apologies and forgiveness should be more common.

Second, Shaq's comments struck me as odd. He argued that "in the heat of battle," athletes say things that they don't mean. Harrell did not intend racial hatred, so in Shaq's mind, this is an example of unnecessary sensitivity on the part of the media (or someone, it's not actually clear). For Shaq, if we say it but don't mean it, then the problem of offense is on the part of the hearer who is too sensitive.

The claim that "we all say things in the gym" is actually very similar to defenses of President Trump's indecent remarks about women which were called "locker room talk." As Christians, we should definitely get out of the habit of justifying behavior based on the setting or even intent, as if the normality of bad behavior in a given place makes it acceptable. Smith's comments to Shaq are better, "We have to break those habits."

Third, Kenny Smith makes an interesting claim: "Racism requires power." I think this is probably a commonly held belief, but I'm not sure it holds up. Modern conceptions of racism often include forming beliefs about someone based on the color of their skin combined with membership in a majority culture. Racism is often connected to a disparity in power between classes or persons, but I do not see why it has to be the case. This definition seems to inadvertently justify hate or malice so long as you have less power than your target. Hatred in that direction might be more understandable, but not more moral. The goal for our society should be the end of hate, not the acceptable orientation of hate.

Incidentally, I think Kenny Smith misapplied his own point. Smith argued that since Harrell could not prevent Doncic from hitting game-winners, he had no power over Doncic and therefore could not have demonstrated racism. However, Doncic has no power over Harrell as far as basketball goes (Luka isn't even a great defender!), but I suspect hypothetical racial comments from Doncic to Harrell would not have been justified in this way. Why isn't it enough to say that hateful comments are hateful? Why the social desconstruction?

Fourth, I appreciated Smith's comments about expecting better behavior from each other. Smith acknowledges that as a black man, he has been called plenty of names, and there is no line forming to apologize to him. Just the same, he argues that we should all do better. We can't wait on the other side of our culture wars to behave better before we do. Sucker punching our socio-political rivals is not justified because they did something worse.

As Christians, this should be entirely true. We can speak love and reconciliation without any expectation of return or reward. We can just do the right thing when we err as Harrell did in this instance. Jesus, above all, shows us that decency on your part is not a prerequisite for decency on my part. "He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly" (1 Peter 2:22-23).

Fifth, Ernie Johnson claims that sometimes recognition of race can be affirming or positive. Calling Larry Bird a "bad white boy" is intended as a compliment. I tend to agree, at least in part. I don't believe we have to be color-blind. Race exists, it is part of who we are, and our race and heritage should be respected, not ignored. I also agree that we can be too sensitive in this regard.

However, I'd also say that well-intended statements can still cause harm. We can all do better to be more aware of how our words affect others beyond merely what we meant by them. I hear this in marriage counseling all the time. One spouse, often the husband, says something that hurts the other spouse. The husband says, "But that isn't what I meant!" Turns out, words without harmful intent can still hurt and even harm. It is good to acknowledge when hurtful words are not intended, but it is better not to say them at all.

Sixth, Smith and Barkley discuss whether the rules for speech apply in both directions. Smith seems to argue at the beginning that if as a black man he does not want his race identified in this way, then he should not treat a white player in that way. Barkley goes a step further and claims that there is a double-standard at work. "If he'd have said that to a black guy ..." the results would have been different. Smith immediately pushes back with a "slippery slope" remark.

I think both Smith and Barkley have a point here. Barkley is right that there is a double standard about racial remarks. Racial remarks from a black man to a white man are not nearly as incendiary as from a white man to a black man. However, it is completely fair that a historically oppressed group of people would be more sensitive to racial statements than the reverse. Of course, they are! It is a double-standard, but not necessarily an unreasonable one. Because of the racial history of the United States, a white man should expect to encounter a somewhat different threshold for judgment. Historically, people who look like me created this mess, and if the worst I have to pay for it is heightened sensitivity in my language, I think I can live with that.

Finally, I think it is very interesting that in this video segment we see four men, three of them black, who do not entirely agree when viewing the same incident. Race relations are difficult. There are no easy answers. The only thing in this whole incident that is pretty much agreed on is that Harrell was a classy guy for apologizing.

What Can We Do?

As the racial dialogue continues in our country and in the church, we are going to have lots of disagreements. We won't all see every incident in the same way. We can listen and we can try to understand, but we won't solve the issue of hate and inequality by wishing. What we can all do is start taking personal responsibility for our own thoughts, words, and actions. Regardless of intent or context, we can recognize the ways in which we hurt each other. We can seek to hear rather than to be heard. We can be instruments of peace and move the needle on our cultural discord one person at a time.

Giant social problems like racism won't be solved merely by individual behavior, but personal responsibility and reconciliation are good places to start.

Ben Williams is the Preaching Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma, and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his new book Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.


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