On Jan. 17, Olympic ice dance champion Charlie White posted a screenshot on Twitter of something he'd written "from the heart.'' It began, "Words matter. Action matters. The role we play in society matters. These are lessons I learned as an athlete, and they are the words I live by as an Olympian.''
The micro-essay was a signal that things were about to change on White's social media portal for his fans and followers, where his profile invites them to "Join me here for an important conversation.''
Since then, amid personal snapshots and promotional tidbits for the ice shows he does with partner and co-gold medalist Meryl Davis, White, whose Twitter handle is @CharlieaWhite, has posted a steady stream of strong opinions about national politics. Many of his Tweets have pointedly criticized the Trump administration, but White keeps returning to a more general theme he felt keenly as an international athlete: the image and example his country presents to the world.
White also engages in lengthy, patient, but firm reply threads with those who disagree with him. It's a huge departure from his sanitized competitive persona where, as he admits, "I wasn't a good interview. I didn't say interesting things.''
Taking such a public stance is unusual in the Olympic sports realm, where active athletes often refrain or are discouraged from making political statements by their sponsors and governing bodies, and are formally barred from doing so on the field of play at the Games themselves. (One outspoken exception is six-time Olympic shooting medalist and gun-rights advocate Kim Rhode, who addressed the 2012 GOP convention and last summer openly backed then-candidate Donald Trump.) White, who is married to 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith Belbin White, says he has felt no external pressure to censor himself. He and Davis have not competed since the 2013-14 season that culminated with their gold medal at the Sochi Games, but they have not ruled out a comeback. "[Tanith and Meryl] are both supportive," he says. "They know 100 percent that when I feel strongly about something, I can't stay silent. We're on the same page in terms of what is important in the world, and there are things worth standing up for."
White, 29, has been chipping away at a degree in political science at the University of Michigan for many years. He still makes his living in the figure skating realm as a performer, commentator and occasional choreographer.
He realizes some may think he's on thin ice, whether or not he and Davis ever compete again. But White says he is driven by a sense of obligation. "Post-election, I had to look at myself in the mirror and say, 'What are you really disappointed with here?' And unfortunately the answer was 'myself,''' he said in a recent interview. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Ford: Was [commenting on politics] something that you had to ponder for a while, or did it happen organically?
White: It's very interesting to be doing an interview of this nature [laughs]. I've gotten so comfortable with my go-to answers regarding sport and figure skating. I'm a bit nervous to take this on publicly, both in this interview and via social media. I've long been interested in politics, but I never expected myself to become a political commentator, objector or relatively outspoken person one way or the other. It had less to do with being an athlete and more to do just with the fact that I really have worked hard for people to like me. And I have always enjoyed being able to make people happy. Unfortunately, it's always seemed to be that when you step into the political realm, you don't get the benefit of the doubt any more. That's weighed on me.
Following the election, I wasn't happy with the result. I understand the way politics work, as a living, breathing organism in our society, and that so often, change is revered for the sake of change. I got it. But I did, at that moment, recognize that being upset with the way the election turned out, I could really only hold myself accountable, as I hadn't participated as a vocal, active citizen in the process. I determined that if I want to be able to be at peace with myself, I have to take a larger role. I'm almost as surprised as some of my skating fans that follow me on Twitter.
The quote on Olympism is taken from https://t.co/GSCweRnh7s
The other one is from the heart.
Thanks for reading,
- Charlie White (@CharlieaWhite) January 17, 2017
Ford: I don't know what percentage of your replies [on Twitter] you're responding to, but it seems like a lot. What's that like?
White: That's an important part of it for me. Being able to engage with people is ultimately what will allow us to coalesce as a nation. I understand the deep divide and I understand partisan politics -- it doesn't seem there's an easy way out. So I think beyond being able to engage people with different kinds of ideological beliefs, and set a baseline for expectations that could be universally applied to our political system, that's a way in which you can start to heal what has been a grueling process that started with the campaigning for this last election.
We're all coming at this from very different life experiences. To be a good citizen, you have to be able to come to the table with an open mind and a respect for the diversity of the people you'll be dealing with, to learn something as well as contribute. On Twitter, it can be difficult. You're stuck with 140 characters, but that doesn't mean you can't give people an opportunity to listen to something they might not have heard before, in a respectful way. Being able to listen to people, even via social media, and make them feel they've been heard and understood, even if you disagree vehemently, I think that's something they can take with them and allow them a better way to enter into the next conversation they have with someone. It's been very important for me to engage with those who raise objections -- but also those who agree with me -- but do so in a way that I don't think is conducive to a healthy conversation. I have taken stands against people who, you know, they're trying to be funny, they're trying to be witty, I get that. So much of dealing with things that scare you is to trying to make it funny. But when that "funny" is at the expense of someone else, you put them in a defensive posture, and it's certainly not going to solve any problems.
Ford: Has it been hard to be restrained? Are there times when you draft a tweet and say, "No, I'm gonna trash that one.''
White: Yeah, of course. I'm fallible. I don't expect that all my interactions have been perfect or will be perfect. But I do have very high expectations for myself because I recognize that what's at stake is much bigger than being petty. It's so easy to be petty when you think there's no hope you'll be able to even have a respectful conversation. That's how it can often devolve. Online, when you're not face to face with someone, you can ignore they're a real person. Lately I have gotten some of those messages where it's like, 'OK, this person clearly isn't trying to add anything or take away anything. They might not even believe what they're saying, they just get a kick out of being mean.' You have to be aware of what you're dealing with. I generally try not to block people. You deserve more than one opportunity to bring something constructive to the table. Who knows what epiphany someone could have?
Ford: Skating can be a very snarky, subjective environment. But I've got to believe the worst of what you experienced then is nothing compared to what you could experience now.
White: As an athlete, I always had a very stoic approach. I want to apologize, but it was probably the right way of handling myself when we were competing -- I wasn't a good interview. I didn't say interesting things. I probably said about the same thing in 90 percent of my interviews for about eight years. But for me, it was always a matter of show, don't tell. If I had something to say, I did it by practicing hard, being consistent, keeping a level head and going out and doing my best. I think that allowed me to stay away from making critical mistakes at the wrong times. I feel the same way now. As long as you take an intelligent and measured approach to the things that matter to you, and you do so with an open mind and a kind heart, thinking about more than just yourself, then you can't be disappointed with the outcome. I feel that way about Twitter, and I feel that way about politics, and I feel that way about life. I think it's served me well so far. If through my actions and my words I can give strength, or courage, or a new take on the same information to 10 percent of the people who hear me or listen to me or care about what I say, then I think that will have been worth it. Even if zero percent are interested in what I have to say, I can't be disappointed in my own effort. That's certainly something I've taken from what I had to go through in skating.
Ford: You're still in that skating world, making a living in a different way, and I assume will do so indefinitely. Your sponsors, your agent -- have there been any uncomfortable conversations?
White: I haven't had a direct conversation with anyone about it. I know my parents are proud, which means a lot to me. Taking my tone and my approach into account, I don't think there's much to be worried about. Ultimately, when you feel as strongly as I do about questions of morality and ethics, you can't sell yourself short on that. There is a balancing act, of course. But I feel a great sense of duty to the country that allowed me the opportunity to have such a fantastic life, to represent them at the Olympics. I guess if there's an issue that ever arises, I'll have to deal with that. Right now, I feel fortunate that I haven't had any pressure to stay quiet.
Ford: Is it possible we would see you out marching?
White: Yes, absolutely. It's been exciting to see the way the public has responded. It's not easy to go out and take a stand for something you believe in. But that's how we started this country. It's a way of getting people -- not to think the same way, but to really think hard about what it is our country should be representative of.