When former NFL player Wade Davis, as a teenager, first told his mother that he was gay, he wasn’t prepared for the response he got: “You’re already black!” she told him, adding that she wished he would die of cancer rather than tell her he was gay.
Their relationship remained uncomfortable for years, Davis says, but eventually, after many difficult conversations, they came to better understand each other’s perspectives. Now, years later, he says his mom and his fiancé happily talk and text each other. That long and hard progression, he said, helped to give him insight into the need to ask deep questions and try to understand why other people with different views feel the way they do.
Davis, who now serves as the NFL’s first-ever LGBT inclusion consultant, described these experiences in the keynote address at the 44th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration luncheon, held at a packed Morss Hall on the MIT campus. He explained that he eventually learned that his mother had a much older brother who had been killed in a lynching. He finally understood that her harsh words were her way of trying to protect him from the prejudices and hatred she knew he would encounter in the world — and that she had experienced all too vividly.
“You have to have compassion for those you disagree with,” Davis said. In this case, he said, the breakthrough in understanding only came after “I asked my mother better questions.” Reflecting on a short poem by Langston Hughes, called “Personal,” Davis said this compassion is the key to effective action even when the path is difficult. “The work must become personal,” he said, as people struggle to bring greater justice and equity in the world.
In his own growth, he said, he came to realize that thinking that of oneself as a good person doesn’t really matter. “We’re so interested in our own goodness,” he said, but that’s not as important to others. “They don’t care if you think you’re a good person. What matters is what you’re doing.”