“Racism is learned,” Tierra Ruffin-Pratt said during a Wednesday conference call with media. “You're not born that way.”
The Los Angeles Sparks guard is holding court with various reporters, expounding on the topic at hand—a topic that needs to continue being front and center if anything is ever going to change.
They are discussing on a grander scale the recent protests sparked by the tragic death of George Floyd. But on a more personal note, Ruffin-Pratt is again opening a wound.
Her cousin, Julian Dawkins, was shot and killed on May 22, 2013, by a black off-duty police officer, Craig Patterson.
The former Arlington County sheriff’s deputy would eventually be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, receiving a six-year sentence for the life he took.
It’s that sentence that continues to draw questions from Ruffin-Pratt who wonders how things would have played out if the situation were switched.
“If a police officer or a white person kills a black person, they get to go home to their families until they feel like it's okay to arrest them,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “But if the shoe was on the other foot, if it was a black person killing somebody, they go to jail immediately, so we stand on that.”
Ruffin-Pratt is eager to share her story if it invokes even a modicum of change. She was among the contingent of Washington Mystics players who, in 2016, donned “Black Lives Matter” shirts prior to a game against the Sparks.
The league had initially fined players for the action but later rescinded the penalty. A few years later and leagues and brands are quicker to engage players and fans in positive support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Ruffin-Pratt now plays for Los Angeles, joining the squad after spending six seasons in the nation’s capital. And, again, the topic of racial inequality intersects with the issue of police brutality.
The hope is one day we get to a point when the notion that black lives matter is undeniable, when people of color can see police as a safe haven rather than a potential threat to their livelihood.
Until then, Ruffin-Pratt is going to use her platform.
“I think a lot of my teammates and counterparts around the WNBA have spoken up and said what they feel and believe and we all want change in this country, we all want things to be different, we all want justice for black people in America,” she said. “So we’re going to speak out, we’re going to say what we feel. If people agree with us or don’t agree with us, it doesn’t really matter to us. Because, like I said, we’re standing for something far greater than ourselves, something far greater than this league, something far greater than anything that any businessperson can say.”
The ongoing protests, while offering catharsis, also give voice to the voiceless. Prominent athletes continue to do their part to frame the issue.
“We’re standing for black people in this country that haven't gotten justice, black people who’ve lost their lives and black people that come before us," Ruffin-Pratt said. "We stand for generations before us, our generation and generations to come.”
It sometimes feels as if we’re on a nauseating merry-go-round, where we’re almost destined to end up right back where we started. It might be a week from now or a couple of years.
However, the mission doesn’t stop, not for the 29-year-old from Alexandria, Va.
When asked about her cousin’s death and what justice looks like, Ruffin-Pratt has a response that resonates with those trying to find equality throughout the American landscape.
“I think the main thing is just keep it relevant, don't let it die off in a couple days, a week, a month, because it’s something that’s been happening for a long time,” Ruffin-Pratt said. “Who knows what justice really is. Is it that these cops are arrested and put in jail for life? Justice to me may be different for somebody else. The guy who killed my cousin got six years, he’s out already.”
Justice is, inevitably and tragically, an impossibility. It’s just out of reach of those most affected and too severe for those unable to grasp the enormity of the pain.
It comes back to doing the only thing you can do, and that’s move the human experience in the right direction, nudging it with powerful strokes of empathy and education.
“This is a talk that we have to constantly have with ourselves, with people around us, with our kids, this is a constant conversation that needs to be had,” she said.
The Sparks guard has a simple request: not to let the message dwindle and fade as it so often does, drowned out by the deafening silence of apathy.
Protests have taken place now for over 10 days. Exhaustion, life, even COVID-19 could begin to stem the tide of demonstrations.
But the work doesn’t end there. It continues, and Ruffin-Pratt has some thoughts on how to better society.
“Racism is learned,” she said towards the end of this mid-week media call. “You're not born that way. So, all we can ask is for white people to change themselves, change their family, change the generations coming after them. Because what’s being taught, and what was learned long before now is just trickled down.”
Racism is a virus that moves not only from one person to the next but down the family tree as well. But the cure, while not easy, is equally as potent.