The death of George Floyd and the subsequent week (and still going) of protests around the country speak volumes to a problem that we have in this country when it comes to race. The year 2020 and we are still dealing with racism. It is truly sad to see, and I have some words on it that I want to share.

I grew up blind to the fact that racism existed in this world. I had two loving parents that taught me the golden rule of loving everyone as they are. I lived in a middle class mostly white neighborhood, but my next-door neighbors were African American. Yes, they looked different than me but I never thought of them as less because of that.

I grew up playing sports. I started when I was five years old and played until I was 18. Baseball and basketball were the two I played all the time. I met a boy when I was in elementary school that moved here from Georgia with his mom. He moved in with his cousin and her family and went to school with me. His name was Breon, and he was black. Breon was an extremely talented basketball player, a step above everyone else. I was an average player that just loved to play the game. Breon helped lead our recreation league team to the championship game for the first time since I began playing. I remember dog piling at center court and hugging him after we won the game to make it to the championship.

Breon and I would sleep over at each other’s houses. We would go to the movies, and most of all, we bonded over the game of basketball. It didn’t matter if it was inside on a Nerf goal in the living room or if it was on the dirt court outside, we loved the game of basketball, and it brought us together as friends. Now I knew Breon looked different than me and his mom looked different than me but that didn’t matter to me because he treated me as his friend, and I in return did the same.

This is not one of those “I don’t see color” stories because that is just not true. We all see color. If anyone tells you they don’t, they are lying. I learned from an early age that it didn’t matter who it was, as long as they were good to you and treated you with respect they were welcome in my parents house.

As I grew older, I began hearing the jokes. I began hearing a name that I had never heard before. It was the N word. I was confused. I was shocked to be hearing this word for the first time. Friends would say it; their dads would say it, and I realized that this wasn’t something that they were born with. It was taught. Their parents might not have told them to say it or that it was ok but they grew up hearing that word come out of their parents’ mouths and assumed it was ok for them to use it.

If a white female dated a black male, they would call her a name that even thinking it makes me cringe. Some would even call her that to her face. It was then that I realized that this kind of racism wasn’t just one or two people. I was a large number of people I grew up around saying these things, and I hate to admit but I almost got swept up in it because “That’s what everyone is doing.” I felt trapped. I didn’t know what to say or what to do. I knew it was wrong but I was scared to say anything because I would be cast aside. I considered these people my friends, and I didn’t want to lose them, but at the same time I absolutely hated what I was seeing and hearing when it came to their racism.

My senior year of high school, I played basketball with close to 30 kids combined on the JV and varsity teams. It was me and one other player that were white, the rest were black. I was never treated different, and I was never bullied. My race didn’t matter to them. We were friends, and we were teammates. I still speak to them when I see them and just recently we all reminisced over our playing together in a Facebook post that one of the players started. I didn’t see why people treated black people differently. I was so blind to what was right in front of me and looking back I feel so dumb for not seeing it.

As I got older, I started reading. I started reading about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I started reading about Malcolm X. I read books by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Toni Morrison. I listened to African Americans stories about their experiences with racism or racial profiling by the police and others. I began to listen more intently because I realized I was clueless about the situation. I didn’t speak because it wasn’t my place to speak. As a white male, I will never understand what they are going through. I will never be stopped late at night and asked where I am going. I will never be asked if I belong at a certain place. I will never hear people say mean and racist things to me based solely on the color of my skin. The list goes on and on of the things that black people have to endure each and every day that will never happen to me. What I have done to educate myself isn’t enough. I have to continue to educate myself and also to stop turning my head like I did for too long growing up.

The basis behind this whole column, the reason I have said what I said is to tell the African American community that I care. I see you, and I love you. I will stand up beside you and speak out on the injustices that I see happen. I will do my part to continue to educate myself and to educate my son so that he will know that these things still happen, but we can do our part to help any way we can.

There’s a phrase that people on the internet throw around at sports writers, players and coaches that speak out on the things that I have just said and that phrase is “Stick to sports.” I have a duty to myself and to those around me to not sit silent. Silence is compliance, and I refuse to do that anymore after I did it for way to long when I was in high school.

Johnathan Kirland is a sports writer for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact him jkirkland@gazettevirginian.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnathanK_GV