Protest: As American as Football
Perhaps we should have paid due attention to Colin Kaepernick the first time he knelt on the sidelines of an NFL game. Perhaps we should have acted the first time a young black man was shot simply for the color of his skin and for the associated demonizing stereotypes. If we as Americans could comprehensively address racial issues and tensions in a meaningful and long-lasting way, then perhaps athletes wouldn’t feel the need to “politicize” the games that they play. But we can’t seem to do that. We, especially those of us who are white, continue to act as if race is an issue that we can sideline (pun intended) and come back to when it’s convenient. This isn’t really surprising, as racism tends to benefit us more than it does us harm. Who wants to to hear about racial grievances and police brutality on a Sunday afternoon anyway? We shy away from conversations on race, and that makes writing about racism a shout into the void. Those of us who need to hear these words most are the least likely to read them, because reading something that is critical of the norm is never easy; it involves dismantling a structure that our society has become accustomed to, and on the whole, people dislike change.
I certainly don’t think I’m the best person to talk about race and patriotism, but that isn’t enough to keep me from trying. I think this quote from the Wall Street Journal’s editorial is a good place to begin: “Americans don’t begrudge athletes their free-speech rights […] but disrespecting the national anthem puts partisanship above a symbol of nationhood that thousands have died for.” This sound bite (which will, of course, sound amazing on Fox News) manages to gravely misunderstand both the essence of free speech and what it means to serve one’s country. Thousands died so that we in this nation might make use of our beautiful First Amendment, which is the right to free speech. These athletes are not disrespecting the national anthem, but instead are asking America to live up to the very values enshrined in the anthem. This is not a partisan idea – it is an American idea.
The 2016 election ignited a perception that certain aspects of American life are apolitical and nonpartisan. This may have been acceptable pre-Trump, but the truth is that no aspect of American life is nonpartisan anymore. If you are lucky enough to believe that identities are not political, that “culture/identity wars” are not worth fighting because supposedly they can never be won, then this is a good place to begin in examining your privilege. Identities are political because they can be wielded as tools of oppression. Your identity and your culture may not be political because no one has ever tried to use them against you to prevent you from voting, to incarcerate you for petty crimes, or to shoot you without just cause; for this, you should consider yourself lucky. The very act of labelling things as “political” is a political act in itself – and it is only possible for those whose lives and livelihoods are not assaulted and threatened on a daily basis. We as white people can put racism aside for another day because it does not permeate the fabric of our everyday lives. This is what white privilege is – we are blind to it, we benefit from it, and we must confront it.
We are so incredibly lucky to live in a country that allows us to protest, march, and speak out. We are lucky that we have the choice to stand or kneel during the anthem. It sounds cliché, but so many nations don’t have this privilege. We pride ourselves on being the freest nation on earth, with liberty and justice for all. But what is freedom if only a few are truly free? What is freedom if some of us are oppressed, discriminated against, and, at worst, murdered because of the colour of their skin? What is freedom if the best opportunities in America are reserved only for those of a certain race? Allow me to insert another cliché quote here: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” When John F. Kennedy spoke these words in 1961, our country was on the brink of the first Civil Rights Movement; indeed, we now find ourselves on the precipice of another such event. What can we, as everyday American citizens, do for our country? How can we make it a better place not just for those who look, talk, and act like us, but for everyone who lives here? How can we make this a place in which all are free – to walk safely at night, to express our feelings, to protest in the midst of oppression?
Thousands have died so that we might have the right and the privilege to hold our beloved country to a higher standard – to make it a safer and more prosperous place for every single one of us, not just those of us who are white. Thousands have died so that we might protest against our government when we find it is not serving all of us. Thousands have died so that we might boast of being the greatest country on earth. If we refuse to hold our country to the highest standards for each and every citizen, we are disrespecting not the flag or the anthem but instead those thousands who died for our rights as Americans. It is probably true that Donald Trump is exacerbating our racial crises and furthering the divide between us, but we must acknowledge that this divide exists before we can ever hope to heal it. We may be providing bait for him, but this does not negate the importance of the topic. Police brutality, murder of innocent young people, mass incarceration, voter suppression – these issues exist, and yet we have not acted in a way that should make us proud. If we want our American traditions like football to become de-politicized, and if we want to truly be the greatest country on earth, perhaps we should listen and act in the first instance so that the dams do not break again and flood into the aspects of our lives that we have blessedly deemed apolitical.