NBA Star John Amaechi on Diversity & Inclusion: Hate Speech Goes Beyond N- and F-Words

Former NBA star John Amaechi says the antidote to stereotypes and slurs rests in mindfully chosen words.

Former NBA Player John Amaechi Speaks at DiversityInc 2011 Special Awards

Diversity and inclusion awareness—and the use of mindfully chosen words—holds the antidote to dissolving stereotypes and slurs.

Former NBA player John Amaechi discovered the power of words when he first was called the N-word—a kid with a mullet yelled it out of a passing clunker car as a college-aged Amaechi walked across campus.

It was an incredible shock for the emerging basketball talent, and it caused feelings of incredible doubt. “I felt that they were looking at me and they didn’t just see someone bouncing a ball—they saw something more than that,” Amaechi told attendees as they listened with fascination at DiversityInc’s Special Awards dinner in Washington, D.C. “This is part of the power of this type of speech.” Watch the full-length video or a video clip below.

He linked this painful memory to when Kobe Bryant used an epithet about gay people on camera this past April—a particularly personal moment for Amaechi as the first pro-basketball player to publicly come out as being gay. “We have to be very careful with hate words because when powerful people say them, there is despair.”

Despite negative slurs, Amaechi, a psychologist, would rather focus on the positivity of words and their ability to be antidotes to hateful speech. This, he says, is the greatest driver for diversity and inclusion at organizations. For more on stereotypes, read Blacks Should Not Be Satisfied With Food Stamps’: The Danger of Stereotypes and Jeremy Lin & Racism: 3 Ways to Stop Dangerous Stereotypes.

His mother, a doctor in the United Kingdom, taught him that words can be used for good. He jokingly says how she was like a Star Wars Jedi when it came to words, such as making him clean his room. Laughing aside, Amaechi believes a certain psychology lies at the heart of diversity and inclusion, and gaining an education in words can bring people a sense of unity and hope.

“It’s amazing how many different ways you can call someone [the N-word] without actually saying the word,” he said, “so we have to be more sophisticated, too.” That sophistication can be manifested every day among employees.

“In a world where diversity [and inclusion] is important, sometimes people wonder about all the initiatives you can do for diversity, but what you can really do is teach people to really be there when they are talking,” says Amaechi. This becomes the opportunity for an understanding that goes beyond stereotypes.

For more on stereotypes, read Challenges in Diversity Management: How Do Stereotypes Affect Us?

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  • Amechi was lucky he had a strong family to help him have the courage to get through the slurs thrown at him because of his color and sexual orientation, without it he could have grown up as an angry man with a poor self image. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t have a strong coach as well, he really could have used a good a jump shot. I think diversity in Western Civilization at least the future for all of us and especially our children. It should be and must be embraced by all of us. Thank you Mr Amechi.

  • It is refreshing to read the above article and to hear someone else express the intense power of words. I was also thrilled to hear Amechi explain the way in which one can call another person the “N” word without ever using the word.

    Words do indeed have tremendous power and we can use them to make positive changes. As Amechi explains they can be used in a positive manner. As harmful as they can be, words can also provide hope and encouragement.

    In my line of business, post-secondary preparation, words ae the tools we use to motivate our youth participants. We help the students change their outlook on their lives simply by using positive words to invoke positive thinking.

    I live in Milwaukee, the most racially segregated city in the United States. Diversity training should be on the top of the list of every organization in this city. In all the time I have lived in this city (most of my life), I have found it to be very commonplace to use negative language when referring to a person of a particular race or cultural background. I do not, but I hear it often.

    I suppose the forefathers of this country never anticipated it truly becoming a melting pot. Perhaps if they had, diversity training would have been mandated centuries ago.

  • Curtis Fitzgerald

    I enjoyed listening to this speech. It is a good reminder about the power of words and how we can impact others with our words. I think it would be good to have a message about how to deal with the negative words. He touched on that in his speech but I think people can deal with negative words better once they understand that those insults only have as much power as we give them. That is not to excuse the use of the words discussed in his speech, offensive slurs should not be accepted but we can learn to reject the negative feelings they cause in us.

  • Someone should ask Kobe, What’s worse, being gay or being a cheater? Remind him that he is not perfect and not to judge others.

  • i think that people are just showing more of their ignorance and true nature because of fear. to call someone out of their name is a sign of fear. that is why i tell anyone i may assocaite with friends or faamily call me my birth name. because if its easy to give a nickname then its easier to call you deraogatory name.

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