I’d like to begin this article by admitting something I’ve been ashamed of for a long time: my third-grade soccer team wore the Confederate flag on the back of our jerseys.
Mind you, this was 1991 and one of the premier college basketball programs was the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, featuring Stacey Augmon, Larry Johnson, and Greg Anthony. So, our team wanted to change our name to the Lincoln (NE) Runnin’ Rebels, modeled off of that team.
In 1991, the mom of a teammate had our jerseys made up, complete with the Confederate flag on the back. Imagine a bunch of 9-year-old white boys running all over the field like this. The thought of it now makes me cringe so hard. But at the time, I was a kid who thought, “Cool, it’s the Dukes of Hazzard flag.”
I didn’t understand what that image truly symbolized.
We made it through an entire season, plus half of a second season before we were called out for it. I remember the confusion when someone told me that a kid on the other team wasn’t going to play. He was there for warm-ups, but then his mom pulled him off the field. It’s important to note that he was black. His mom would later become my middle school social studies teacher. More on that in a moment.
I should point out that we had different jerseys created soon after that. I suppose our parents received the message from that kid’s mom. Many reading this probably think, What’s wrong with these parents who let their kids run around in those jerseys?
I don’t believe our coaches and parents meant any harm or disrespect. I never heard them use derogatory terms or speak badly of others. It was a misguided decision based on popular culture, not black culture.
But perhaps this is part of the problem: not acknowledging why certain symbols, words, phrases, or actions are wrong or hurtful.
Also, when we don’t educate ourselves on issues of race and race relations, then fearfully stay silent when these issues arise, we become contributors to injustice.
Growing up on the east side of Lincoln, Nebraska, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to other cultures. My school was predominantly white. So was my church. I never noticed it much because I simply didn’t know any better. Still, I was raised to be respectful of others, to show kindness always, and to be a friend, especially to those in need of one.
I was kid who tried to do and say the right things. So fast forward to middle school, and as I mentioned earlier, my social studies teacher was the black mom who had pulled her kid off the soccer field several years earlier. She gave us an assignment to write a paper. I don’t remember the exact topic of the paper, but I do remember I wrote something to the effect of, “I am colorblind to race and try to see the person for who they are, not what color they are.” So imagine my dismay when I got my paper handed back with the dreaded “See me after class” note. I had to stay late after class to discuss my work. Many of you probably remember the fear of reading “See me after class” on any paper or assignment. So I sat nervously as the class cleared out, leaving me face-to-face with my teacher.
Here’s what my black teacher told me that has stuck with me to this day:
She explained to me that it’s not OK to say “I am colorblind.”
Instead, we should recognize the differences in each other and celebrate our different cultures. I’ll never forget the grace and understanding—but also sternness—in the way she spoke in order to drive the point home. It made perfect sense to me. It’s OK to be different. It’s important to see those differences and understand those unique qualities that make everyone who they are.
I’ve carried that lesson with me through my life—into college and then on to Houston, Texas where I experienced a lot more exposure to people of different cultures. I always enjoy meeting people of different backgrounds and learning about their culture and what makes them unique. I am not colorblind.
Now into my late 30s, I don’t remember a lot of details from middle school. I don’t remember if I had algebra or geometry. I don’t remember what books I read in English class. But I recall clear as day the conversation I had with Mrs. Lillie Myles. I was a young white boy receiving an invaluable lesson on race relations from a black teacher in a predominantly white school.
Now, that shame I feel for wearing the Confederate flag as a third-grade soccer player is replaced with shame for staying silent for too long.
Just modeling antiracist beliefs is not enough anymore. Instead, I hope I can have open dialogue with my white friends who maybe don’t model antiracist beliefs. Maybe I can do more to show my kids—the next generation—the importance of recognizing and celebrating the differences in our fellow Americans. Maybe I can do more. I hope I will.
Thank you to Mrs. Lillie Myles. Your actions and your teaching made a significant impact on my life. I now hope I can impact others. Better late than never.
While writing this article, I felt compelled to Google search Mrs. Myles to see if I could find anything about her. Sure enough, the first link I found was a story of Lincoln Public Schools honoring retired teacher Lillie Myles on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January of 2019. She’s quoted in the article:
“I want you to examine your heart and to examine what’s taking place around you. And be as brave as Martin Luther King and to step out and say, ‘I want equality for all.’ That is my challenge to you . . . You have work to do.”
Yes indeed. We have great work to do.
One final note regarding my third-grade soccer jersey . . .
Yes, I’ve kept it all these years. At first, I kept it as a remembrance of a time in my youth playing soccer with my friends. Now, I hang on to it as a remembrance of mistakes we make in our lives and a reminder to not repeat them.