‘It’s tough for me to compromise when it comes to my humanity’
By Martenzie Johnson
On June 1, Jeremy Ebobisse, a forward for the Portland Timbers in Major League Soccer, posted a blog on Medium detailing the anger, pain and despair he feels as a black man as protests continue to take over the country following the deaths of African Americans George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, at the hands of law enforcement.
In the post, titled, “It’s not meant for your comfort …,” Ebobisse, whose parents hail from Cameroon and Madagascar, lays out not only his feelings of seeing yet more black people killed by the police, but also of the white resistance to African Americans’ cries about police brutality and racial inequality before Floyd suffocated to death after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes on May 25.
“The same people I’ve sat across from in class and in locker rooms complaining that I always make things about race, that I’m too serious all the time or, worse, that I’m being dramatic, are the ones all the sudden posting about how awful or surprising this is,” the 23-year-old Ebobisse wrote.
As the title of the blog post says, Ebobisse wants white people to feel the same discomfort that black Americans feel almost daily. He doesn’t want congratulatory texts or endorsements from sudden white allies. He wants black pain to be felt and understood, for white people to go beyond hashtags and tweets to truly deconstruct the white supremacy this country was built on.
That includes soccer. The sport, particularly in Europe, has been marred by countless racist incidents by fans, players, coaches and the media. In recent years, MLS has had to deal with the unfortunate public relations task of having to address its white supremacist problem. For Ebobisse, the blog post was him using his position as a professional athlete to demand change when it comes to the treatment of African Americans.
“Through all this rage I hope that, one day, people will understand that making a change isn’t about using black bodies to feel a part of a social media movement after seeing an emotionally scarring video, but rather a constant journey of decolonizing your minds, listening to black voices, finding organizations to support and putting anti-racists in power,” he wrote.
Ebobisse spoke with The Undefeated by telephone about how the recent black deaths have affected him, what role white people play in these conversations and why he won’t condemn the looting and rioting that have marred some of the protests.
What made you want to write the post last week?
I think like many black Americans … a lot of emotions pop into mind when something like this happens, and for me it’s just, ‘Not again, or why this again?’ And then to see the social media fallout, I’m looking left and right, and I’m seeing different accounts, different people, people that have been critical in the past, all of a sudden embracing this moment as the moment for change.
And I’m asking myself, ‘Why now? Are you for real? Is this authentic or are you part of a quote-unquote progressive community and now’s the moment that you need to show that you are in support of these values in order to maintain that public image?’ Because while there are a lot of genuine people that I’ve met over the years and that I’ve interacted with online and in person over the years, I know that there are also a lot of people that have caused me a lot of stress in forcing me to have these challenging discussions or just dismissing my concerns altogether.
So I needed a place to vent and that’s how it all started.
What type of reaction have you received?
The reactions have been very positive, but I break that down into two categories.
The responses that meant the most to me were the people that said, ‘That struck a chord with me. You’re talking to me here. You’re telling me that I haven’t taken this seriously now, and I probably won’t take this seriously in a few months, that I’m caught up in a moment, and that made me feel poorly about myself, knowing that I’m potentially taking advantage of a moment, whether I know it or not. I have to make this commitment to myself, and to you, and to you as my friend, and to society, that I’m not just getting caught up in a moment and this gonna be a lifestyle change that has been long overdue.’ That perception, from, I’d say, about 50% of the people, that’s what I’m looking for.
And then there’s been, I’d say, another 50%, that have said, ‘Wow, that’s a great message. That’s so powerful. That’s amazing. Thanks for your bravery and for your honesty. That’s just awesome. Thanks for that.’
The piece wasn’t meant to make people feel good about anything. That’s why I call it, ‘It’s not for your comfort.’ George Floyd’s murder is not for your comfort, and what I’m saying isn’t to make you feel good either. It’s to make everyone feel critical about where they’ve been in the past, because, again, this has been happening whether we see it or whether it’s something that goes under the radar, whether it’s someone who dies or whether it’s someone who is just brutally beaten or just harassed or just a victim of the system in different areas, this has been here.
So that self-reflection I felt was missing from some of the positive responses that was very bland.
Playing in a sport in America that you’re the minority in, have you ever, or did you ever, find it difficult before this to talk about race?
I would say toward the beginning of my career there were definitely moments where I found it difficult to talk about politically leaning subjects because I was younger, I didn’t know what would happen if I spoke out. There were rumors that some people would prefer that I didn’t speak out. So balancing that was an act that, more and more as I’ve gotten older, more comfortable in my position, decided to be less and less apologetic about what’s going on, because me beating around the bush doesn’t help anyone. It wastes my time and energy, and it just makes other people feel good about themselves and deflect about what I’m actually talking about. On a personal level, with teammates and in the locker room, I would say most people, in general, are receptive to that kind of conversation.
But there’s a time limit for sure. They don’t want to be hearing about it all the time. So where I’m thinking about it most of the time, they don’t want that to be the norm. Now, more than ever, they’re reaching out to me, asking for my approval on things, which frankly they don’t need. I think everything that people do needs to be authentic for it to be sustainable. Because I can’t coach someone through this. But in the past, I would say there were only a handful of nonblack players that I can consistently talk to about race and that would listen and engage and were genuine.
You have a line in the story where you said, “reception to advocacy is often times contingent on it being comfortable for the listener.” Can you expand on that more?
I follow some really strong and intelligent and passionate advocates on Twitter, and I wish they didn’t spend the time that they do going back and forth with people that, frankly, don’t agree with them at all and are just there to troll, but they do. I also applaud their ability to maintain their emotional sanity through that, because it’s challenging, as people run on their own time. What I’ll say to that is advocacy — it’s easy for people to point the finger at someone else. When I normally talk about issues, I try not to point too many fingers. The unspoken group that I’m speaking about is usually a group that ‘progressive people’ will feel comfortable pointing the finger at.
But the second that I hypothetically point the finger at progressives, who are now leading these movements — and I’m superappreciative of the constant energy that continues to be on display right now — but if and when, and however I do point the finger at that group of people, all of a sudden I know that some people will take that well and take that critically and take that to heart. But I also know that some people will say, ‘No, I’m on the right side of things. Maybe you’re pushing the line too far this time.’ I understand that fine balance.
I mentioned Malcolm X in that piece and how he said the South is anything south of the Canadian border. Because when you see throughout this country — I’ll speak particularly to New York City, because that’s what I’ve kind of been looking at recently. When we’re talking about school diversity, segregation, integration, New York City schools look as bad, arguably if not worse, than what they might’ve looked like around the [Brown v. Board of Education] decision. And I’m following kids, a group called Teens Take Charge, trying to address that system of inequity, and [New York Times reporter] Nikole Hannah-Jones had a great The Weekly video interviewing and articulating people that feel they’re on the right side of these issues — that they’re all for diversity, for helping improve the system — get very defensive and very stubborn when it comes to changing a model that they have benefited from for so long. And it’s the same way that it was in the past when schools first started undergoing busing. Now that fight over public schools in New York has the same dynamic.
When you saw what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and what’s going on with the protests and what law enforcement is doing with the protests, how do those things make you feel?
It makes me feel hopeful. It angers me as well at times, just seeing the reaction of certain policemen out there. The teargassing of largely peaceful protests. I know that there’s been some moments of looting and more aggressive rioting. But I’ve also witnessed a peaceful protest here in Portland. I’ve been a part of it, and I’ve spoken to people who have been a part of very peaceful protests and have been agitated by the police there to supposedly protect the people that are protesting. So, I feel a range of emotions. I know that there was energy too, though, when Trayvon Martin was killed, when Eric Garner was killed, when Tamir Rice, whoever it is, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown. I know there was energy then too. Maybe the combination of coronavirus and people being out of work and people being at home more has given an opportunity for others to make more time to contribute to the protests.
But I just hope that the image, the power of many coming together to defend our human and civil rights, translates into a continuation of learning the history of this country. … This shouldn’t be a political issue, but frankly it is. I don’t believe you can be out protesting saying that you want justice for George Floyd but also simultaneously be voting for Trump or a large majority of the GOP [Grand Old Party] platform in the fall. I don’t believe that at all. And I also don’t believe that — because I’m seeing this as well — I don’t believe that you can separate what happened to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery and all the other men and women that don’t get as much attention or get you just a moment of attention. I don’t believe you can separate what happened to them with the systemic injustice in education, in corporate practices and in the criminal justice system. Those things go hand in hand for me.
For a lot of people who have spoken out in support of the protests, a lot of them have then also been forced to, or a lot of detractors will force them to, condemn the looting and the violence. You didn’t do that. I was wondering why didn’t you feel the need to have to condemn the other aspects of the protests.
Because it’s not about the looting, the rioting, it’s about the failure to address the problem, the failure to address systemic injustice, police brutality, the treatment of black and brown bodies that has gone on since the founding of this country. That is why we are where we are today. We would not have any of the issues, the rioting, the looting, even the protests, had this country chosen to reconcile its original sin.
And so I’m not here to give that argument weight, frankly. It’s just an argument meant to dismiss what’s going on in this country and what will continue to happen if we shift the narrative to one about looting, riots, which frankly haven’t even been the majority of protests in this country. I understand people in power who need to maintain order. I understand their need to speak for George Floyd and also speak to the safety of their community. But in my position that’s not where I find myself. I need to focus on keeping the narrative about systemic injustice beyond George Floyd. I pray for his family, and I honor him, because he didn’t deserve any of this. Neither did Breonna, neither did Ahmaud.
But this country needs to reconcile with all of the injustice that’s present. And I’ll say that there have been periods where this country has attempted to do so. I would say Reconstruction was a big one. The civil rights movement was a big one. I think Obama’s election was a big step, but with each of those steps, there’s come an equally powerful backlash that has set our country further back, in my opinion. And we need to focus on what’s going on and how this country can move forward so that we don’t have the scene that we have right now.
You were born in Paris and raised in Montgomery County, Maryland. What have you learned about racism, whether it’s happening here in America or abroad?
I had a unique education through that because, given that my parents weren’t from this country, I didn’t have the stories passed down from generation to generation of black Americans about the civil rights movement, about Jim Crow, about the period of mass incarceration and war on drugs. I had to learn about that as I was coming of age — I would say early teens — because my parents settled into a quiet neighborhood and had been able to shield me from a lot of the harsher realities, but inevitably, you can’t hide with your skin color.
My first relatively traumatic experiences were on the field playing against teams — where a team from South Carolina, where defenders called me the N-word repeatedly throughout the second half of the game. And that was just so shocking to me, traumatic. I just started crying on the field as I kept playing. And that’s when I realized that it didn’t matter where I grew up, it didn’t matter how smart I might be or whatever other qualities are inside of me, that I would be reduced to my skin color for specific people. So that’s how I started to learn. From that moment on I really took it upon myself. Some of my teachers challenged me to be critical about the way I thought about the world and in the country, but slowly but surely I found my place, and I learned more as I started getting older and becoming more and more of a threat in people’s eyes. I saw the harsh reality even in my quiet suburb.
But from a world perspective, my parents understand the difficulty of being black and in this world, because it’s not just limited to America. They fought real hard to get to where they are now, especially my dad going from Cameroon to making it into the university system in France. That’s where he met my mom and they worked through college, and ultimately my dad’s just been breaking glass ceilings in the infrastructure investment world. And now he’s focused on giving back and making sure that his whole career has been about trying to bring the continent of Africa up to speed through infrastructure development. I’ve had a cross of the international and American domestic lens for my black experience, I would say.
Whether it’s your white teammates or just white people in general, whether they play sports or not, what do you think their role is right now?
I think they have a critical role to play in this. Racism has often been framed as a black problem, which, understandable — I mean, we’re the victims. But also it’s a plague on the white community. As black people, it’s a challenge to be taken seriously by certain white people. And that’s just the brutal honest truth. I think that they have the opportunity to speak to their family members, to their friends on a consistent basis, and bring them along and make them engage in the material, because there’s no excuse for being ignorant about these issues. There’s no excuse for the line that I’m seeing right now, where people say, ‘I’m normally silent because I don’t want to weigh in. And I don’t know so much about this stuff.’ There’s no excuse for that.
The groups I’m talking about have Netflix, have books, have access to the information, have the internet. There’s no excuse for not having that information. And they need to share it with their less forward-thinking friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, because, again, I’ve alternated between how I want to communicate. And I used to respond to people who just had no sort of agreement with me. And ultimately we were just talking past each other. And I don’t think they valued anything that I had to say. And frankly, it’s tough for me to compromise when it comes to my humanity and my rights. That’s where I think white people who are genuine can really make an impact, because I’ve seen the result.
I have a lot of white friends, and I’ve seen what they can do when they have these discussions on a regular basis with their friends, and in a nonaggressive way, but in a way that also doesn’t do a disservice to the facts and to the situation. As a black person, it makes me feel that I have the right people around me when they come to me and they say, ‘Hey, listen, I’m not here to have you hold my hand through this, but I just wanna let you know that, through what you’ve spoken to me over the years, I’ve been able to bring that attempt to the attention of my friends who grew up in areas that had very contradicting views, and I’ve been able to bring them along.’ And I know that they’re committed to the righting of their previously-held ideologies.
Unlike some of these kind of canned statements that have been put out by brands or teams or leagues or individual players, you actually mentioned what people are protesting against, which is the state, the police, those types of things. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on the role of law enforcement in society, particularly how it affects African Americans.
Law enforcement, it can be a pillar of society and it can be here to protect everyone. But, frankly, we’ve seen what abuse of power looks like too often. And that’s something that continues to hurt the black Americans and starting to hurt white Americans too, as they start to empathize with our pain. There has to be honest reflection in what’s going on, and, listen, I’m not here to shame any law enforcement officials or departments. I don’t think that’s the way to go, but at the same time, we have to acknowledge that there is the bad apple theory — that theory needs to be dissected, because ultimately when it takes however many years it took to fire the police officer who killed Eric Garner, there’s a problem with that system. I understand due process — black Americans understand due process more than anyone in this world. But that’s unacceptable. There was a killing in broad daylight and it took, I want to say, at least four years to fire that officer.
So there is this idea that there are bad apples, but ultimately is this system rewarding people that hold bad apples accountable? That’s the question that I think we need to ask. And if it is, then why aren’t people holding these bad apples accountable, and how does that make them complicit? Because it ultimately does make them very complicit. If the system isn’t shaped in a way to reward people holding other ‘bad apples’ accountable, then that’s the fundamental flaw to the system right there.
I think it was Bryan Stevenson who said the system isn’t broken, referring to the criminal justice system, it’s working the way it’s supposed to. That’s a powerful line. And that’s one that needs to be taken into account when we look at our law enforcement apparatus and our court systems as well, sentencing guidelines, etc. But, listen, I know there’s a lot of funding that goes into the police and how that money is spent. The militarization of the police, with some of these weapons that are out in the streets, doesn’t feel like they’re there to protect you when they have some of the resources that they have, and who am I to say what they do and don’t need to feel safe in their job, because ultimately they are doing a thankless job and a difficult job, but it deserves scrutiny as well, because we’re talking about a lot of money, which, frankly, a lot of other programs can also use that money. And maybe that might make the police’s life a little bit easier, to know that some opportunities could be extended to people, to hypothetically prevent the growth of the stereotype of black men and women.
Why do you think what happened to George Floyd garnered this type of response from white people when other black deaths over the last few years hadn’t?
That’s what I ask myself a lot. I think the combination of coronavirus, that has really severely impacted our society and put a lot of things to a halt. So I think that people are more easily intaking information. I think the rapid succession of national attention on Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd created this sort of capitulation effect where it was like, this is happening too much, too often, too quickly, in too quick succession. I think those two combined probably accounts for a good amount of it.
But as we said, there was outrage, there were riots back for Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald too. So it’s about gauging and measuring what happened after these, because ultimately it won’t really matter if these got a lot of attention, if it doesn’t translate to something meaningful after the fact, it’ll just be another historic rallying where people rallied to the defense of unarmed, black, brown men and women but nothing happened of it. And it’ll just be until the next one, unfortunately. Now I just expect, I expect another, uh, national tragedy; it’ll be until the next one for people to reignite that energy. I want to believe that this is authentic, and that this new energy or renewed energy is meaningful and is the start of something new, but I find it dehumanizing a little bit to the previous victims that they weren’t enough as well. So I think we have to do them all justice.
You recently retweeted something that you wrote in December 2016, which was, ‘If we protest, we’re violent. If we wear shirts to warm up in pregame, we’re disrespectful. If we kneel before an anthem, we deserve to die.’ Looking back on that now, and what’s happened in the recent days, how do you feel about that statement that you made four years ago?
Not that I need to feel justified in the things that I put out, because I go through a pretty overextreme vetting process of rewriting, rethinking and reframing before I put stuff out. But I feel 100% justified in that tweet. I don’t remember what it was exactly that led to that tweet. Maybe [Colin Kaepernick] was kneeling at the time. But a lot of people who are complaining about the protest and then whatever chaos has ensued on certain days and in certain places, did not take Kap seriously. And so the reality is there is no appropriate way to protest.
Trevor Noah said it himself in his shows and in his addresses, the criticism of the manner of protest is a deflection to avoid talking about the systemic issues. If people had taken peaceful protest seriously, there could have been change by now. That was over three years ago. And I’m not saying change happens overnight or over a year, but measures could have been put in place to start to address the system, whether the system needs an overhaul or just needs to be reformed, that conversation could have happened if we weren’t having the conversation about should Kap kneel or not. And the idea that some athletes or some people still think that either they don’t owe him an apology or that they were justified in criticizing his manner of protest is appalling when we see how they criticize nonpeaceful protest. So that qualifies, what is peaceful protest to them? And which one is acceptable? Because when LeBron and the rest of his teammates wore “I can’t breathe” shirts, they were spoiled professional athletes, that’s how they were labeled when they were still standing for the anthem, they just wore a T-shirt that said, ‘I can’t breathe.’
And so every time we try to find a compromise in our manner of protest, we are still talked down upon, belittled, our intelligence is called into question, and our character is called into question. And that’s unacceptable. That’s why we continued to have this problem. So whoever it is, their criticism of protest, especially based on where they’ve been chronologically through history, it’s disingenuous, and they’re probably not people searching for reconciliation and for justice and for creating a more equitable system, whether we’re talking about the people being killed in the streets or ultimately the wider system that I was alluding to, from education to political to corporate.