“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.
Within Under Our Skin, Watson’s approach helps facilitate a multi-dimensional conversation. Using his original Facebook post as scaffolding, Watson isn’t afraid to speak hard truths to all sides. Corresponding with the paragraphs in that Facebook post, the eleven chapters are used by Watson to say some things that as a white man, I probably can’t legitimately say. But he says those hard truths with a layered perspective that helps provide a better understanding of why some viewpoints are probably outside the scope of some people’s rhetorical purview. Individual experiences don’t always allow for an honest assessment; which is why listening to each other plays such an important role in Watson’s proposed solutions.
Benjamin Watson’s book succeeds for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it’s a well-written and interesting book. Beyond that, Watson has the storyteller’s ability to uncover transcendent value that resides under the surface of entertaining tales. Under Our Skin provides a platform for Watson to relive some hard experiences as well as some wonderful experiences. His anecdotes are interesting, well-told, and well-chosen, guiding the attentive reader to a better understanding of how people are products of a variety of outside influences. No individual is so flat as to be readily understood and interpreted apart from the hard work of entering into their life story. And the dominating storyline from Watson’s life is his faith.
Toward the end of the book, Watson recounts how his Facebook post resonated with a variety of people. One such person was an atheist who commended Watson for his thoughts, but added “minus the part about God.” Reflecting on that moment, Watson tells the reader, “I appreciated his response and told him so. But there can never be a ‘minus the part about God’ if we want real solutions.”
Pushing forward, Watson boldly declares his belief in God and that the “under the skin problem in America, is a spiritual problem.” In fact, he has the audacity to say that “when we focus on another person’s skin, we miss the reality of our own sin.” Even when I find myself in disagreement with Benjamin Watson, I find that I still benefit from listening to what he has to say because he so clearly points out that the ultimate solution is found in salvation from sin through Christ Jesus. And that’s a perspective that I can “amen” to wholeheartedly.
Watson’s well-crafted book is a needed voice of calm wisdom within the increasingly shrill racial divide. Calling us to take the time to humbly listen to each other and recognize that our differing perspectives don’t have to be a threat, Under Our Skin gently compels us out of our respective corners and into an open place of dialogue.
Read Benjamin Watson’s original Facebook post on Ferguson that inspired Under Our Skin on the next page: