Former NFL player turned artist pens powerful essay on racism: 'The choice to stay silent is a privilege that Black folks do not have'

Joshua Keyes marches in Houston following the killing of George Floyd. (D.E. Digital Group)
Joshua Keyes marches in Houston following the killing of George Floyd. (D.E. Digital Group)

A former NFL player who left sports for a career in art is back in the spotlight thanks to his powerful open letter speaking out about the systemic racism he has faced as a Black man.

On June 3 — nine days after the killing of George Floyd and amid global protests — former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Texans linebacker Joshua Keyes posted a letter on Instagram expressing his frustration over racial injustice and citing personal instances of discrimination that he has endured, including being called racist slurs and having cops follow him.

“In my 27 years of life, I’ve been called a n***** to my face countless times,” wrote Keyes, in the letter that has since been shared widely on social media. “I’ve been pulled over, pulled out of my car and slammed on the hood because the police had suspicions that the car I was driving wasn’t mine. That it was ‘too nice to be owned by a n*****.’

“I’ve been denied access to restaurants,” continued Keyes, who has become a professional artist since leaving the Texans in 2018. “I’ve been followed through retail stores while shopping. I’ve been
asked for multiple forms of identification when making simple purchases, while the white people in front
of me were not. I was picked out of a section at a sporting game because someone was sitting in a seat that wasn’t theirs. They suspected it was me — the only Black person sitting in the section — it was not.

“I’ve been out to eat and watched a couple refuse to sit at the open table next to me. I’ve been followed by cops on jogs through neighborhoods. I know people who have woken up in the middle of the night to crosses being burned in their yards. I know people who are locked up in private prisons for petty crimes. I’ve watched people cross the street while I’m walking toward them in the same direction. I’ve stepped into elevators and observed women hide their purses behind their backs. These are some of my experiences. Every Black person in America has experienced similar, if not worse things.”

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Keyes’s essay goes on to talk about the systemic history of racism in America, from slavery to Jim Crow to what underlying racist policies still exist today. He also called out non-allies and non-Black people who are choosing to remain silent and are thus complicit in the face of racism.

“I’ve been observing who has stayed silent,” Keyes wrote. “I see you hiding to protect your name and brand from counterparts that might not agree if you say something. I see you putting your own popularity ahead of the lives of innocent people who are being lynched in the streets.”

The essay ends with a call to action for allies.

“If this letter inspires you to change, this is what we need,” he says. “We need you to stand by us. We need you to shut your mouths and just listen. We need you to stand by our sides and fight the fight with us at ALL times.”

While his words resonated with many, the Houston-based artist tells Yahoo Life he has received pushback from some critics.

“The manager of a small art supply store, which I’ve been supporting by shopping at them exclusively for over a year, got wind that I wrote a letter on Instagram addressing racism," Keyes says. “When I was picking up some supplies, the manager mentioned the article and said, ‘You know the slaves weren’t kidnapped but instead went willingly.’ Not only is that statement false, but he also flippantly disregards any wrong-doing of white people.”

But comments like that aren’t deterring Keyes, who has taken part in protests following Floyd’s death.

"I marched with George Floyd’s family and 60,000 others in Houston, Texas," he says. “These protests are very important because they show unity and strength in numbers. A large united group of people is dangerous to those in power who want to keep us divided. Although the threat of danger was imminent, as a Black man, I’m more concerned for my safety when I’m pulled over by the police for a routine traffic stop.”

Keyes is also pouring his feelings into art through his latest solo art project, titled ASCEND, which is set to tentatively debut in September. ASCEND will be a 12-piece show exemplifying Keyes’s skills and signature style of painting and drawing with bright colors, which is already in the early stages of development.

“I am currently exploring a narrative of growth,” Keyes tells Yahoo Life of the artwork’s message. “I believe that our mission on this earth is to improve it as much as possible, to leave a blueprint for the future generations to build upon to curate into a beautiful world. I have chiseled these beliefs down to three pillars: love, authenticity and economic freedom.”

Keyes notes that it will likely take years to “eradicate all of the policies set in place to oppress people of color.” But there are actions white allies can take to help begin to turn the tide.

“In order to help ‘even the score,’ actionable steps must be taken,” he says. “White people can get involved by joining Black-led grassroots movements in their community that advocate for dismantling racist laws and defunding police. Donating to bail funds and other programs that benefit disenfranchised people is helpful to those who have become involved in the criminal justice system. Supporting Black businesses promotes economic growth in historically deprived communities. ... Vote in every local election for people who support overdue reform. Support Black-owned businesses and amplify people of color in every arena.

Staying silent is not an option, he adds.

“Participating in systems that benefit you, and then choosing to remain silent in regards to others who are disenfranchised from those very systems is not neutrality because it is beneficial to you,” Keyes explains. “The choice to stay silent is a privilege that Black folks do not have. ... The white community must continue to listen and learn. Openly listen to our stories of oppression and refrain from getting defensive and dismissive. These stories will make you uncomfortable, but the feeling of discomfort will allow you to be receptive to understanding why us people of color have been fighting for reform.

“Just because the events of yesterday are no longer the headlines of today, it does not mean it is over,” he continues. “It does not mean that hundreds of years of oppression are resolved ... there are many ways to speak out. Some people choose to sign petitions, donate money, post on social media, make phone calls to representatives. They just cannot sit still. Lastly, remember this: Your words remain empty until your words become your actions and your actions become habits.”

Keyes is also calling on the Black community to continue to support one another from within.

“The Black community also needs to unify," he explains. “Our culture has become divided by prejudice we have curated in our own communities against each other through colorism. The Black community must unite as one. We must lift each other up at all times.”

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Originally published