When I arrived at Spanish Fork High School last week for the purpose of listening to former Don star football players Isaac Asiata and Richard Wilson talk to current players about racism, I looked forward to getting the insight of these athletes.
I knew they have had experiences I haven’t had and learned lessons that I need to learn, which is what I planned on hearing from their words.
But what struck me most forcefully as Asiata and Wilson talked with the Spanish Fork players was the power of their emotions.
At one point, Wilson couldn’t keep the feelings from being almost overwhelming. Asiata spoke with passion and conviction about his experiences, both good and bad.
I realized as I sat there on those bleachers at the Spanish Fork football stadium that these two gifted athletes were conveying a message that went beyond just the important words they were saying:
It’s not enough to just evaluate what people do; it’s imperative that we attempt to understand how they feel.
I believe that is the only way to truly combat issues like racism and biases because it gets us closer to the heart of these problems.
As I have followed recent current events and think about past examples of police brutality and violent protests, I see a lot of actions that don’t make logical sense at all.
But when I consider the strength of emotions I believe people are feeling like fear and anger and frustration and desensitization, I can comprehend why certain actions take place.
That doesn’t condone any of the crimes or violence in anyway but I see it differently when I try to understand the reasons and emotions behind even the worst acts.
Emotion is universal, although I know from my own experiences that everyone deals with it differently.
That’s why in just about every interaction one of the best questions you can ask is “how is the other person really feeling?”
It’s not “how do I think the other person should be feeling?” or “how would I feel if I was in the other person’s position?” Those questions are inherently inaccurate because they rely too much on our own experiences.
No, we have to strive to truly grasp how someone else feels, even if it is completely different than we would feel.
During his part of the conversation, Asiata asked the Dons how many of them worried about their safety when interacting with police. When no one said they did, he said he had asked the same question to some of his African-American football teammates and almost all said they did.
It made me think about how terrible it must be for anyone to feel that type of fear even during a simple traffic stop.
I also thought of the other side, of how it must feel to be a police officer making a traffic stop with the intent of making the roads safer for all and to feel the fear every time of not knowing if you are putting your life in danger.
I’ve never personally felt either emotion — but I can see how people in both circumstances could be worn down by such fear. Then those emotions can get compounded when they happen over and over again, as well as when people hear about others deal who are dealing with similar experiences.
Another aspect Wilson and Asiata also helped me recognize was the cost of one negative experience outweighs the benefits of dozens of positive interactions.
Take, for example, what happens with bullying. When I dealt with that as a youth, I remember that one incident would ruin an entire day, even if everything else seemed to go well.
As I have recently heard stories of bad experiences from friends of various ethnicities and backgrounds, I see how those situations would have an enormous impact on the emotions they feel.
But, as Asiata emphasized, we absolutely have to listen to be able to understand.
“Change only happens if people on opposing sides listen like they want to be heard and understand as they want to be understood,” Asiata said last week. “Those are the most important things because it is so easy to get wrapped up in your own opinion that you don’t care about what the other person is saying. There has to be an open line of dialogue but it can’t be hateful dialogue. It has to be peaceful, positive and productive or otherwise you are just spinning your tires.”
As I looked at the faces of the Don football players as they listened to Asiata and Wilson, I found myself hoping they would incorporate the concepts as a team because sports — and football specifically — teaches these lessons by its very nature.
To be successful on the gridiron, passion has to be tempered by discipline. The team has to be more important than the individual. Protecting and lifting your teammates when they are in trouble is the only way to lift the entire group.
All of these aspects are applicable if we want to truly build our communities and overcome inherent biases and misconceptions.
I hope those boys take that to heart.
I hope they realize just what a difference they can make every day by listening to each other, by understanding how each other feels and by valuing every individual, regardless of heritage, occupation or any other differentiator.
And I hope the rest of us can follow that example as well.