Nate Behar on the evolution of a movement and finding his place amidst it

Nate Behar with the Ottawa Redblacks. Photo: Timothy Austen

By Kieran Heffernan

Days after the death of George Floyd, Nate Behar was sitting in an Ottawa dog park, listening to Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” from the rapper’s iconic “To Pimp a Butterfly” album. Behar noticed the album art – which shows a group of Black people standing over a dead white judge on the White House lawn – and began pouring his own words into his phone.

Writing was meant to be a cathartic way to get his thoughts out of his head, but the essay he produced unexpectedly ended up becoming a widely-shared, widely-praised piece reflecting on what it really means to care, to understand, to be “white” and to hate. 

The June 5 Medium post, titled To Pimp a Movement (based on the album that inspired it) pushed Behar into the media’s attention in a way he wasn’t used to. The all-time great Carleton Ravens wide receiver, who most recently caught passes in the CFL for the Ottawa Redblacks and is now a free agent, felt the impact of the intensified amount of attention.

“It started to be exhausting a little bit,” he said. “It starts to be this weird thing of wanting to have the conversations and wanting to be a part of the education, but then also feeling like, damn, why am I always the one getting the phone call now.”

He said he understands that’s the way things are though, comparing it to a biologist discovering a new species of fish. Of course the media would want to talk to her.

“It just feels a little different when it’s something that hits so close to home,” Behar said. 

He had an initial wave of interviews and appearances in June, then a second burst in August as the NBA went on strike to protest police brutality. It was during the NBA’s sudden strike Behar said he began to grapple with whether he was becoming a “racial profiteer” – which is another idea Kendrick Lamar alludes as well. 

“It’s like, wait a second, I can’t allow myself to feel intelligent or special because you want to hear my voice,” he explained. “Now I benefit from these horrible, horrible things. That’s the last thing you want to be a part of or be connected to.”

Behar said he’s “conscious” of the fact that he’s an athlete with an opinion, but at the same time it gives him plenty of people from the past to look up to. 

“It’s interesting being an athlete in general, and then being an athlete with an opinion, Number 2, and then being a Black athlete with an opinion, Number 3,” he said. “And I can only imagine being a Black female athlete, that would be the fourth evolution of that Pokémon.”

One of the points that Behar explores in To Pimp a Movement, which he refined with the help of University of Texas professor Bedour Alagraa, is the idea of the “constructed theory of whiteness.” He describes how courts in the US tried to come up with a definition of whiteness, and when they couldn’t, simply defined it as “the act of not being non-white.”

“The only reason a ‘white’ person ever existed was to be racist to people that they didn’t think were white,” he said. He cites the discrimination faced by Italian, Irish, and Scottish immigrants to the United States as further proof that whiteness doesn’t exist. 

“They just move the needle, move the goalposts,” he said. “The concept of whiteness just builds out and then gets bigger and bigger, but the weight of that now just gets heavier and heavier because more people are part of it. And they get to crush people below them even worse.”

Behar has continued writing and said he’s hoping to contribute a multi-part “epic” to CBC. 

“I don’t know if they’re going to give a 25-year-old football player the print space,” laughed Behar, who also recently founded a tech company and runs positional football camps in Ottawa.

“But I got something in mind that could be pretty damn good, so hopefully they let me roll with it,” he said, explaining that he intends to investigate how race defines the different positions in football. 

“The Black quarterback is something so very different from the white quarterback, and the white running back and the Black running back,” he said. “The quarterback, in a lot of ways, they’re the CEO of the football team. I think that that kind of goes hand-in-hand with why people are terrified and have for so long not wanted Black quarterbacks to succeed.”

As Behar describes the exciting plans ahead of him, it’s sensical to wonder if he’s optimistic for the future and the movement for racial equality. It’s a question over a summer when the topics of equality and injustice (and to a lesser-volume, himself) were feeling the sheen of the spotlight, that he was asked many times.

“Well, no, I’m not at all to be honest,” says Behar, who believes in what he’s already experienced: that people’s and the media’s attention will wander.

“Because in four months, you’re not going to be asking me to be on your show, because you’re going to be talking about the election and some nonsense, Donald Trump’s taxes and all this shit that really doesn’t actually matter in day-to-day lives.”

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