Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson with Ken Petersen. Carol Stream: Tyndale Momentum, 2015.
Summary: Watson posted a series of thoughts on his Facebook page after the grand jury decision in the Ferguson case. As a result of the viral response, he wrote this book to expand on his reactions as a black man to this decision.
Benjamin Watson is a tight end who plays for the New Orleans Saints and participates on the executive committee of the NFL Players Association. He is an African American and also deeply committed Christian. On Monday, November 24, 2014, he was playing against the Baltimore Ravens in a Monday night game when the grand jury decision was announced that found no probable cause to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown.
The following day, he wrote a post on his Facebook account headed by the following “I’m…” statements (you can read the full post here):
- I’M ANGRY
- I’M FRUSTRATED
- I’M FEARFUL
- I’M EMBARRASSED
- I’M SAD
- I’M SYMPATHETIC
- I’M OFFENDED
- I’M CONFUSED
- I’M INTROSPECTIVE
- I’M HOPELESS
- I’M HOPEFUL
- I’M ENCOURAGED
It went viral and was “liked” more than 800,000 times and opened conversation on his team, in churches, and the media. As a result, Watson wrote this book to expand on this post and promote a wider dialogue, rooted in honesty. The book follows the outline of the original post with a concluding chapter titled “I’m Empowered.”
What impressed me about this book was both Watson’s candor and his willingness to wade into the complexities and tensions that often get lost in sound bites. He speaks bluntly about how angry he is with continuing segregation in society and in the church. Yet in the same chapter he argues for a both-and approach to the complexities of Ferguson. For example he says, “I believe that Michael Brown committed a theft and ran away from Darren Wilson. And I believe that if a white man had committed the same theft and acted in the same way, he’d probably still be alive today.” He goes on to say, “That’s why the problem of black and white in our world is not a black-and-white issue.” (pp. 16-17).
He talks about his own estrangement from a white friend when told he had no hope with a white girl he had a crush on, because he was not white. He talks with admiration of the heroes and heroines of Selma and his embarrassment at violence, however justified the anger behind it is. He expresses his frustration with hip-hop, at once a music of anger and protest and urban poetry that also celebrates drugs, violence and misogyny.
In the chapter “I am fearful and confused” he describes yet another incident of a black being stopped by police, in this case himself and his wife as he is driving her to the hospital at 3 a.m. to give birth. No explanations, nor offers of assistance. And no probable cause. Yet he calls on blacks to obey, even when police do what they think unjust, to live another day.
He speaks bluntly of the offensiveness of the N-word and the Confederate flag and of the feelings of hopelessness in the continued presence of racialization and outright hate groups. Yet he also speaks of the hope he finds in his faith, in the realization that all that differentiates him from others is a skin pigment, but that underneath, we all deal with a common condition called “sin” and have the hope of a common redemption. He concludes with the empowerment that may come as the people of God turn to prayer, and as black and white take intentional steps toward each other.
What was striking to me in this book is that this is someone who is athletically and financially successful, educated, and articulate. And yet he speaks of experiences that are an enduring part of his world that are painful, and only the consequence of the pigment of his skin, hence the title of his book. My hunch is that some whites will be repulsed by the anger and bluntness. And some blacks might think he concedes too much. What stands out to me is that this is someone, who out of his Christian faith, wants an honest dialogue, and honest dialogue partners.
I could see this book being used in a discussion group of whites and blacks in a college or athletes fellowship or multi-ethnic Bible study. There is a credibility and winsomeness in the way Watson raises issues that lays the groundwork for the whites to re-examine their preconceptions and ask their black conversation partners, “tell me more.” Likewise, Watson’s personal stories open the door to share other stories. There is a willingness to acknowledge the complexities of the issues that models not settling for easy, and often polarizing, answers but encourages us to sit with the complexity, to struggle and question and pray. And when we do this together, as black and white, perhaps then there is hope that we might begin to heal the deep wounds between us.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”