Under Our Skin: NFL Player Benjamin Watson on Football, Ferguson, and Faith

That’s the crux of the problem with the racial divide. It’s a divide. We can’t help but slide to one side of the ring or the other and get ready to fight. And the media pundits push us toward our respective corners.” -- Benjamin Watson

During the recent blizzard here in DC, I found myself shoveling snow with my neighbors. And those neighbors happened to be foreign-born Muslims. As we labored together, we exchanged whatever friendly small-talk our increasing breathlessness allowed. Nothing of substance was discussed, but I found myself wanting, through conversation, to delve deeper into their lives. I wanted to ask them about their experience in this country as foreign-born Muslims. With discussions of increasing Islamophobia dominating much of the news and definitely my social media feeds, I wanted to ask them if their experience has been negative to the point where their initial response on seeing me resides somewhere in the land of resentment and/or fear. But, I didn’t ask. Discussing with strangers the state of race relations in America is fraught with rhetorical perils, after all. But after reading Under Our Skin by Benjamin Watson, I wish that I had.

On the night of the Ferguson decision, NFL player Benjamin Watson penned a long Facebook post detailing some of his thoughts about race relations in this country. The post resonated with people; so much so that it led to Under Our Skin. Besides being a professional football player (he is currently a tight end with the New Orleans Saints), Watson’s multi-faceted life has helped create a unique perspective on recent flashpoint events – he’s a black man who is also a father, a son, a husband and a conservative Christian, among other things. But a perspective that’s not so unique as to be inaccessible to others.

In the book, Watson wrote “that we all share the same heritage – we share a common humanity. We are all created by God.” This understanding of “common humanity” is essential to Watson’s solutions. And one of his proposed solutions is a willingness to listen to the perspective of others. I am neither an NFL player nor am I black man, but I am a husband, father, and a conservative Christian. And those overlapping experiences with Watson allow me an access of sorts into his overall perspective that is also shaped in part by the facets of his life with which I have zero points of connection.

For example, reading his anecdote about driving his wife to the hospital on the night she went into labor with their first child presented me with both points of shared experiences and points of foreign experiences. As a father, I, too, understand the stress involved with trying to get to the hospital quickly and safely. However, as a white man, I do not understand what it’s like to have the added worry of being pulled over by the police. But because of our shared experience coupled with Watson’s compelling narrative voice, I was able to view his experience of being pulled over by a police officer while driving his soon-to-deliver wife to the hospital through a lens that allowed me to empathize in a way that I may not have otherwise.

Empathy doesn’t demand agreement, however. This is something that is often overlooked in dialogue. Thankfully, throughout Under Our Skin, Benjamin Watson doesn’t push for agreement; he encourages empathetic listening. Regardless of which side of the issues the reader finds himself or herself on, Under Our Skin is a book of great value in part because of Watson’s lack of need for full agreement. He’s not attempting to win the reader over to certain points of view; he’s simply asking for conversation.