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The white privilege of Tom Brady not seeing race

The six-time Super Bowl champion has a choice that his black teammates over the years haven’t been afforded

On Wednesday morning, new Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, calling in from the rented mansion of former Major League Baseball player Derek Jeter, sat for a wide-ranging interview with shock jock Howard Stern. The pair spoke for two hours about Brady’s reasoning for leaving his former team, the New England Patriots, his relationship with former head coach Bill Belichick and the strain his job put on his marriage to former model Gisele Bündchen.

But early in the interview, when Brady was discussing how he managed dealing with and trusting unmotivated and apathetic teammates, Stern asked if he ever felt “guilty” or “self-consciousness” about having to be a cantankerous leader of a majority-black roster while being a white man.

Brady, clearly caught off guard by the question, responded, “Never. I never saw race. I think sports transcends race, it transcends wealth, it transcends all that. You get to know and appreciate what someone else may bring. When you’re in a locker room with 50 guys, you don’t think about race … because you’re all the same at that point.

“White, black, whatever it is, you figure out how to get along.”

Whatever one might think about Brady’s idea of racial harmony, based on his comments, it’s clear he possesses a privilege unique to a successful, famous white man. The six-time Super Bowl champion, who has made more than $200 million in his career (not including the $50 million contract he recently signed with the Buccaneers), can choose to not see race, something his black teammates over the last 20 years haven’t been afforded.

Race is everywhere in America. To choose to not see it might sound praiseworthy. But it is also a conscious decision to ignore the unpleasantness of racism and discrimination, not to mention acknowledge each other’s different backgrounds.

Colorblindness erases the experiences of the hundreds of black teammates Brady’s had over the years. Saying you “don’t see color” is a signal to society that 1) you’re a different white person from those slavery-era or Jim Crow white people, and 2) you couldn’t be racist because you don’t even think about it. But former teammates of Brady’s, such as James White, Mohamed Sanu and Devin McCourty, can’t wave a wand and suddenly have 400 years of African American history vanish because it helps their white co-workers sleep better at night.

Nearly every black player or coach whom Brady has come across since being selected 199th overall in the 2000 draft has experienced or knows someone who has experienced police violence, environmental racism, disenfranchisement, redlining, prison sentencing disparity or prejudice in the workplace. Former Patriot Jacoby Brissett, in 2016, became the first African American to start at quarterback for New England. Did Brissett look like Brian Hoyer to Brady?

Race, not colorblindness, is the story of the NFL. The conference Brady used to play in, the AFC, was once the American Football League. In the first half of the 20th century, the NFL had gentleman’s agreements and racial quotas that forbade or limited the number of African Americans in the league. The AFL had no such reservations and thus could choose from the best black athletes in the country. The NFL eventually merged with the AFL.

An example of Brady publicly acknowledging social issues revolves around the treatment of Colin Kaepernick and the protests of fellow NFL players. Brady called Kaepernick a “damn good quarterback” who is “qualified” to play in the league, and said he’s always admired the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. He also told Boston radio station WEEI that he has “no idea if [Kaepernick’s] being blackballed” by the league.

In a 2018 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Brady said he respected players kneeling during the national anthem because the actions prompted “a lot of good, healthy conversations” in the Patriots’ locker room. It is helpful to have those conversations if you see race.

Brady’s privilege isn’t restricted to just skin color. In the Stern interview, Brady also expounded on his decadeslong friendship with President Donald Trump. Brady told Stern that he continues to be friends with Trump, whom he has known since 2001 and whose Make America Great Again campaign cap Brady displayed in his locker in 2015, because “political support is totally different than the support of a friend.”

White privilege allows Brady to only see Trump as a friend, not a politician, even while many African Americans in this country see Trump as the man who called African nations “s—hole countries,” claimed that the first black president was born in Kenya and advocated for the death penalty for the now-exonerated Central Park Five. A collection of Brady’s black teammates skipped the post-Super Bowl White House visit in 2017 due to Trump’s presence. Running back LeGarrette Blount didn’t attend, he said, because “I just don’t feel welcome in that house.” (Brady also didn’t attend for family reasons.) Five months later, Trump called black NFL players “son[s] of a bitch” for kneeling for the national anthem in protest of police violence and racial inequality. Brady called Trump’s comments “divisive.”

Some white people avoid talking about or refuse to see race because it makes them uncomfortable or it might force them to atone for the sins of their ancestors. Researchers at the University of Kansas, University of Wyoming and University of Washington call the tactic “color-evasiveness” rather than “colorblindness” because those purveyors are choosing to not see race rather than being unable to see race.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"