Jake O’Connor: Now Is No Longer The Time For Silence

As our social media feeds seem to be returning to “normal,” The Hidden Opponent wanted to highlight an especially poignant perspective from a Black former student athlete. Jake O’Connor played football at the The College of William & Mary. He graduated in 2012 and has since taken up CrossFit. The following text and photos were originally posted on his Instagram on June 3, 2020. Jake’s hometown newspaper, The Richmond Times, also picked up the story. July is BIPOC mental health month. Celebrate by continuing to fight for racial equality and checking in on the well-being of BIPOC friends and family. “Now is no longer the time for silence.”

Jake and Wanda posed for their engagement photo shoot.

When you see this image, what do you see?

A beautiful picture from an amazing day with my fiancé? An image of unity? All of those things are true, but for me, the picture also shows an intersection of two worlds, Black and White, in which I live as part of both. 

As a mixed man, with white parents, 3 black brothers, 2 white brothers, and a white fiancé, my world and my perspective has always been a bit different. As a young kid, I didn’t really understand race. I just wanted to play with my friends without thought to the color of our skins. I was often able to escape the consequences of race because I was too young to notice. When I started getting older, I began to see the differences –that I was sometimes treated differently or that I couldn’t do certain things that some of my friends could do. I started to see my privilege and my race butt heads. 

I want to emphasize that I have lived a privileged life. I was adopted into a loving family when life for me easily could have been jumping between foster homes until I reached the age of 18. I can never repay my parents for this. I was also privileged to be raised in a home with two parents, in a neighborhood absent of violence, hunger, or poverty. I was raised in a multi-cultural family and we were raised to believe that through hard work and determination, any dreams could be imagined. My siblings and I each took our own paths in life, as we had the ability to decide who we wanted to be, without judgement, something that was truly a blessing for each of us. 

Jake and his brothers.

But, at the end of the day, I am still a Black Man. 

With that comes systemic racism, which often goes unnoticed. What many don’t understand is that you don’t have to be “racist” to perpetrate racist behaviors. Some of my dear friends often say or do things without racist intent, but that are, at their core, racist behaviors. I’d be a very rich man if I could count the times that I’ve been told by a white person that I speak, act, or dress white. Usually this isn’t said to be hurtful to me, but something that I’m instead supposed to take as a compliment. However, when you really look at it, you’re saying that because I speak eloquently or wear a certain brand, that somehow inherently makes me white? You’re saying that if I spoke slang or wore a more urban brand, that would somehow make me more black? What you intended as a compliment instead shows that “white” things have better value than “black” things and that me acting a certain way makes me more or less “black.” No matter how I speak, dress, or act; I will always be a Black Man. I wouldn’t want want that to change. I’m proud of who I am and I am proud to be black. To say that I’m anything less than that discredits my identity.

Jake and his parents at Jake’s Senior Day Game at William & Mary.

What does being a Black Man mean to me based on my experiences?

It means that if I’m put in a situation where friends are talking back to authority, I cannot in fear that I will be seen as an aggressor purely because of the color of my skin. It means that when I go to stores with my parents, they can walk freely while I am followed around the store, despite the fact that we’re there together. It means that my mom has to worry about the safety of me and my brothers because of where we live and what we look like. It means that when I go in for a job interview and people see that my name is Jake O’Connor, they’re confused because what they’re seeing in person doesn’t match what they envisioned when they saw my resume. It means that when I succeed on the athletic field, it’s often attributed not to hard work and dedication, but to the fact that I “have an extra bone in my leg” that somehow enables me to be faster and stronger. It means that when I was accepted into selective colleges, I was told that I was helped by affirmative action, ignoring that I did well in school on my own.

It means that I have to endure white friends asking me why they can’t use the N word or if I would be ok if they said it as a term of endearment, despite it being a term that I never use myself. It’s being told by women that I’ve dated that it wouldn’t work out because their parents or their friends wouldn’t approve of me. It’s having people cross the street, clutch their bags, or lock their cars when I’m walking by. It’s being followed in certain neighborhoods because I don’t look like the type of person who belongs there. It means being told by white friends who are tanning that “I’m almost as dark as you,” as if that’s an accomplishment. At the end of the day, you’re just tan and I’m still black. The list goes on.

With all that being said, because of my situation, I’ve had the unique perspective of seeing both sides of the spectrum. I have friends of all shapes, colors, and sizes and I love all of them equally. Many of them are subjected to the same experiences that I have encountered. Many have seen much more racism in far worse degrees. Many of my white friends have never had to see this side of life, or if they have, they have been able to blissfully ignore it. That’s where the issue lies, in the ignorance and silence of good people. 

Jake and his brothers.

So what do we do from here?

Too often, people see things and don’t speak up. As somebody who hates confrontation, when I’ve heard a white person drop the N word or say a derogatory joke, I’ve often times turned the other cheek. For that, I regret not taking the opportunity to educate. If we’re going to create a better world for everybody, we have to speak up. It’s time to call out those who are able to sit blissfully by. 

While you post inspirational quotes preaching love for all and use #ThisIsAmerica featuring a picture of you on your boat, you’re really speaking for a privileged percent. That is America for a few, not for many. Too many of these same “lovers of life” have been absent these past few weeks. Where are your inspirational posts now? I don’t care if you’re Democrat, Republican, or Moderate; we all owe each other common decency. Yes, All Lives Matter, but today, #BlackLivesMatter because today, black lives are being endangered and threatened.

So what do we do from here? It’s hard to say. You can express your support through donations, supporting local black owned businesses, social media activism, peaceful protest, and more. I just urge you to do something over nothing. Maybe it makes you uncomfortable. Maybe you lose followers or a friend or two. If that’s the case, maybe you should ask yourself why people are abandoning you as you support what is right and good. 

However, I think the biggest thing you can do is educate yourself and those around you. Let’s take this opportunity to learn and ask questions, to have conversations and value the perspective of others. I’ve rarely spoken on my personal experiences with racism because I didn’t want to show that it bothered me. But now is no longer the time for silence.

I am privileged, but I am also black, and I have a story to tell. 

Jake and his fiancé both compete in CrossFit competitions.