Max Siegel: Continuing to SpeakBy Max Siegel
Max Siegel is a rising junior on the Notre Dame football team. An offensive lineman, Siegel is from Fishers, Indiana.
I don’t speak for all black people, but this is my perspective.
“What can I even do?” Those were the first words that ran through my mind after watching the video of George Floyd on my phone. I was downtrodden, frustrated, and felt powerless. Looking back at myself from a couple of weeks ago, I realized that I was a shell of myself. My voice was on the verge of being snuffed out for good. The transition to college had almost pushed my spirit past its breaking point.
I wasn’t always like this. My high school was Jesuit, and social activism was simply a part of its fabric. They not only taught us about social issues, but they also encouraged and provided opportunities for students to get involved as well. By the time I graduated, I had participated in protests, written letters, regularly volunteered at an afterschool program and much more. The younger me was so optimistic that it was borderline naiveté.
College made me soon realize that my worldview was very much not the norm. I was surprised how many were unwilling to have conversations about opinions they disagreed with. Some would even laugh at or mock my perspective.
Eventually, I found myself reluctant, and sometimes unwilling, to talk to people about contentious issues in depth. The common joke around my peers always seemed to be related to “Did you know that Max knelt in high school?” or “Can you believe that Max participated in ____ protest?” I thought that I was still standing strong and staying true to my ideals. That was until I was put into a situation where I was called to defend myself.
Last year, I was hanging out with friends from campus in my dorm when the inevitable “Max knelt in high school” came back up. One of the guys there had never heard anyone bring it up before. He looked at me and, in a tone that was seeping with sarcasm, anger and amusement, said, “Why did you kneel? How have you been oppressed?”
I looked back at him with my own anger and frustration. I sped through so many different reasons, arguments and statistics in my head. Anything to try and get him to understand. And abruptly, I just stopped. What was the point in fighting back? I can’t explain my feelings in such a short amount of time. I was probably going to get interrupted and laughed at before I could finish anyways. So I just decided to say nothing.
How do I explain why I shrink into a corner on an elevator with strangers? How do I explain the mental toll it takes on my father at work? How do I explain my mother’s feelings when a stranger feels comfortable enough to ask if my siblings and I all have the same father because we’re different skin tones? How do I explain my frustration when almost every time I open my mouth around an older white person, I get complimented on how “well-spoken” I am? How do I explain where my seemingly “irrational” fear of police officers came from?
In this country, black men are traumatized at a young age and are taught to be ashamed of themselves. It takes a lifetime to combat this way of thinking, and even then, it is never completely removed.
My mother often tells me a story of when I was a young child, and I can’t help but get emotional whenever I retell it. When I was about four or five, my parents took me to a golf lesson. One of the kids laughed at me and said that my skin was the color of poop. I felt embarrassed. I was ashamed of my skin. For the next couple of years, I refused to take my socks off in front of other people or friends. My parents would always come up to me and ask why I kept them on. And I would always whisper to them, “If I take my socks off, then they’ll know.” From a young age, it was made clear to me that many people think darker skin isn’t a desirable trait to have.
How do I explain all of this to others? To my friend who asked me that question? Do I explain myself to every single person who disagrees with me? How do I explain why I felt that kneeling was the right thing to do in high school? Well, fast forward to the current day, and I have an answer for you.
There I was, losing the person that I had become. All of those years of personal development and struggle was about to go to waste. That is, until one of my close high school friends shared a flyer she made. She and some of her friends, now named Black Women In Charge, organized a protest in downtown Indianapolis and wanted us to spread the word. She’s my friend, so of course, I’d help her out. Even though I thought I wouldn’t be able to make a change, I’d at least show up to the protest to support her.
This was my wake-up call. My reminder that I have a voice and that I’m not alone. Chills ran down my spine when I first drove through downtown Indianapolis. Countless mask-wearing, sign-holding people were streaming towards the Indiana War Memorial. They lined the stairs chanting, shouting, and, most surprisingly, listening.
As I got closer to War Memorial, I could see a pink mask flitting through the crowd forcing people to accept her offer of hand sanitizer. Informing those without masks that there were some available at the top of the stairs. And then she walked up to the other women speaking and was handed the megaphone.
Before I talked to her, I knew that she was my friend. Who else would have worn that pink mask? When she or any of the other women spoke to the crowd, everyone listened. Watching them take control of the crowd, offer direction and state their demands in a manner conducive to reception was inspiring. It’s hard not to feel motivated when you see such a large group organized and run well. Almost everyone had masks and hand sanitizer. Everyone was seeking to have their voices heard, while also fighting the spread of COVID-19. I soon found that my spirit was rejuvenated, and my mind was galvanized. The next thing I knew, I was at a second protest, which became the largest protest in Indiana in the past 30 years.
Ultimately, it was at these protests that I found the answer I had been looking for this whole time. Asking “How have you been oppressed?” in response to the decision to kneel or protest is a flawed question in and of itself. It shouldn’t matter if I or anyone else I know was oppressed. There are people in our communities who are suffering and dying. When someone in my community is hurting, I hurt. When someone in my community is suffering, I suffer. When George Floyd and countless other black men were killed due to police brutality, part of me died with them. I am Max Siegel II. I am Trayvon Martin. I am Philando Castille. I am Breonna Taylor. I am Eric Garner. I am George Floyd. That’s why I knelt in high school. That’s why I will continue to fight. That’s why I refuse to let my voice die.
Don’t let your voice be snuffed out. Continue to speak on this issue. Continue to fight so that George Floyd’s death will not be in vain. Let’s all move forward and become agents of change within our own communities and this country at large.
– Max Siegel