I won’t lie—It didn’t sit well with me when ESPN sports personality Jemele Hill issued a statement saying she “deserved that suspension” following the social media backlash over her controversial tweets about President Donald Trump and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. I absolutely get that jobs are scarce and nice checks for those who truly “started from the bottom, now we’re here” are extremely rare. But sometimes, wanting to stay out of the unemployment line can go too far. Just think about how many people you know who have checked out at their jobs because it’s just easier to go along to get along.
So when I attended the Atlanta Hawks’ diversity-inclusion symposium, MOSAIC (Model of Shaping Atlanta Through Inclusive Conversations), last week, I really expected Hill to continue walking the “just trying to keep my job” tone of her statement. In my experience, many companies do these events just to look like they’re doing something. Rarely are real issues even touched. The conversation usually reinforces what companies want to hear and not what employees of color—black employees especially—really experience, which is everything but diverse and inclusive. Plus, given MOSAIC’s origins, I just didn’t expect to hear anything out of the norm.
MOSAIC, which you’ve probably never heard of before now, is one of the initiatives the Atlanta Hawks created in response to their own racist mini scandal back in 2014, when racially disparaging comments from Danny Ferry—the former Duke standout (enough said)—and emails from then-Hawks co-owner Bruce Levenson surfaced. Ferry’s comments centered on NBA forward Luol Deng’s African heritage, while Levenson’s emails basically argued that Hawks fans were too black and “that the black crowd scared away the whites and there are simply not enough affluent black fans to build a sign[i]ficant season ticket base.”
Today there’s a new ownership group with former Duke and NBA player Grant Hill as a partner. Plus they hired Nzinga “Zing” Shaw, as the NBA’s first-ever chief diversity and inclusion officer. They’ve also put on MOSAIC annually since 2016, and for this third year they tapped Hill to give the keynote address with “Disruption” as its theme.
Kicking off her address, Hill joked about spending time in Belize and zip-lining for the first time before easing into the White House calling her “Donald Trump is a white supremacist” tweet “a fireable offense” during a press briefing, backed by the man himself on Twitter, of course.
And in case there is anyone who thinks that no one is still riding for Trump, Hill made it clear that they are by sharing details of the snail mail of hate she received along with the social media abuse. “I got called the n-word so much that I thought it was my middle name,” she candidly revealed.
All of this happened as Hill was still warming her seat at ESPN’s iconic SportsCenter, dubbed SC6 when she and her longtime co-host, Michael Smith, from the successful His & Hers show, took over in February 2017. ESPN didn’t fire Hill or suspend her for those Trump tweets; rather, the sports network suspended her for another series of tweets in October 2017 that alluded to boycotting Dallas Cowboys advertisers in response to team owner Jerry Jones’ promise to bench players who “disrespect the flag.”
In Atlanta, Hill reiterated that the suspension was justified, noting that “ESPN is in the business of sports” and “not in the business necessarily of being construed as a political organization and I put them firmly in those crosshairs.” She also insisted that it was her decision to leave SC6 and join ESPN microsite The Undefeated to resume her writing career, with hosting TV specials and even creating her own video content as part of the deal.
“I never intended to be a disruptor,” she told the crowd. “I never intended to be thrust into a role of activism,” she added, noting that “I didn’t choose the moment; the moment chose me.”
My worst fears about Hill giving up the fight like so many others whose outspokenness resulted in hard consequences seemed confirmed until she switched it up. As she took on the topics of disruption, diversity and inclusion, she spoke directly to those in hiring positions, who are still overwhelmingly white and male, informing them that people of color and women are experiencing this new old America in ways they can’t even begin to imagine.
“In whatever business that you’re in, especially if you’re a woman and you’re a person of color, there’s a level of vulnerability that you feel right now that may be hard for everybody to relate to. You feel a little scared and under attack right now under some of the current policies and tone that our country has taken,” she said.
Getting even more real, Hill confessed that, in the current Trump climate and after Charlottesville, Va., especially, there were days she didn’t even want to come to work. “For the first time in my career,” she admitted, “it kind of put my dual role of person and journalist in conflict with one another.”
She also let those in power know that the solution to diversity and inclusion issues didn’t rest with those of us who didn’t create the problem in the first place, and that hiring some of us was only the first step. “Getting through the door is just one of the problems that needs to be addressed,” she explained. “We all know there are definitely structures that need to change from a tangible standpoint. We need more women, we need more people of color, you need more LGBTQ people. We know that, but once they make it through the door, then what happens?”
Sugarcoating was not on the menu as Hill shared that, in her 20-year career, she knew what it meant to just be a quota. “I’ve had the experience of being wanted for what I represent but not really wanted for what I represent,” she said. “And that’s what I mean about the difference about once you’re actually through that door.” She added:
Because you can talk a lot about wanting us at the table, but will you listen to us once we’re actually in the room? Will you groom and mentor us the way you would somebody that looks like you? Will you invite us to come play golf? Will you invite us out to drinks so that we can network with key people? Will you recommend us for assignments that challenge and grow us? Will you promote us? Fast-track us? Treat us like franchise players and not just sixth men or sixth women that are on the bench? Will you give us credit when we deserve it, even it means that you get a little less credit?
True diversity and inclusion gets uncomfortable, she said, and companies need to be clear about whether they really want to deal with that:
When you start disrupting what your organization looks like, when it starts changing, and it’s very emblematic of what’s happening in this country right now, when the progressiveness gets a little too fast for people, a little too uncomfortable, when they start thinking that someone else’s ascension or having different people in the room is going to mean less for them, then you get the blowback, then you get the brushback, and then you get the criticism, and then you get people who are angry and mad at you, and you have to make that decision in that moment: Am I here to support the people who are mad over really nothing, or am I here to support the people who have never gotten this opportunity or rarely get it?
The answer to the second half of that question, she said, has largely been a resounding “No.”
“You find in a lot of places—they’re more concerned about the people who are mad as opposed to the people they need to welcome,” she explained. “And so, if you’re in charge and you’re a thought leader, you have to really be honest with yourself about what you have the stomach to do, especially in tumultuous times.”
One of my colleagues, who has seen Hill speak since this whole “Trump is a white supremacist” water-is-wet nonscandal, chastised me for even doubting the “Detroit vs. Everybody” native. So don’t let the headlines sway you as they did me; please know that Hill is still spitting pure truth about what’s really going down for us in this country.