It’s funny how easy it can be to anger the average white American. There are countless atrocities occurring around the globe every day, one of which happened just a couple of days ago, when the U.S. Air Force killed Syrian troops who were fighting ISIS. “Eh, can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs” or “everyone makes mistakes in war” are the usual sentiments expressed after hearing such news. After all, this is happening on the other side of the planet to people we don’t know, so yeah it’s bad, but what are you gonna do?
Offend the typical American’s sensibilities, though, and watch them get self-righteous in the blink of an eye. If you’re, say, a football player named Colin Kaepernick who decides not to stand during the national anthem, well, you’ve just committed a cardinal sin. You’ve spoken up and complained, you’ve shoved it in our faces by doing it during a sporting event, and you’re black.
His actions are not without precedent. Who could forget the image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos standing on the podium at the 1968 summer Olympic games, and in an act of defiance, holding up black gloved fists while “The Star Spangled Banner” played? They wore no shoes, but did wear black socks to represent black poverty and Carlos wore a beaded necklace to symbolise black people that had been “lynched or killed, that no one had said a prayer for.” For their telling of the truth on an Olympic podium they were both subject to abuse and death threats, their children were shunned in school, not to mention Time magazine calling their display “angrier, nastier, uglier” (in contrast to the motto of the Olympic Games “faster, higher, stronger). They were also suspended from the U.S. team and expelled from the games.
The truth is that the typical mainstream white person doesn’t like having reality put in their face, and they certainly don’t want it done during sports. The Olympics in particular have served as an opportunity for the U.S. to display their power and superiority over the rest of the world. And yet, in the middle of the 1968 medal ceremony, Americans were brought suddenly and shockingly back down to the reality of race in their nation in front of the entire world’s eyes.
In both Kaepernick’s case, and that of Smith and Carlos, people complain that the manner of protest is disrespectful to the flag, the troops, and the country. The logic goes that if you want to complain, be respectful, and do it in an appropriate place. A place that we deem appropriate, not you, so we don’t have to listen.
So maybe it is unsurprising, even in 2016 when we’ve apparently become more tolerant as a society, that a black man will get a frosty reception if he wants to air views that might be in contradiction with conservative white America. It’s funny that the average American seems to love it when their brand of patriotism and values are exported and imposed on others, yet the second one of their own turns around and puts a mirror up to any domestic ugliness or hypocrisy, they are turned on and cast out.
America is for the veteran standing for the anthem and Kaepernick kneeling in defiance of it.
And during football no less. How dare a player get political and show the flaws of society during a football game —you’re paid to play, buddy. You’re a thoroughbred. Shut up, show some respect, and get back to work entertaining us. This is America, where sports are for getting drunk, high-fiving, worshipping athleticism that we ourselves don’t have, and living vicariously through the athletes with the million dollar glamorous lives we want. We don’t want politics, and we certainly don’t want your anger and defiance shoved in our faces. Racism doesn’t exist anymore, we cleared that up when that Martin Luther King Jr guy was around, so quit your bitching and show some respect to the flag and nation.
This outrage wouldn’t be complete without the trademark military angle. A video surfaced on my Facebook feed just this week of a veteran on crutches at a football game, standing for the national anthem with great difficulty because of the injuries he sustained while serving in combat. Naturally the comments section went berserk, with people calling Kaepernick shameful, saying if a vet can stand why can’t he, that this is the kind of thing we should be proud of, and that people like this vet didn’t fight so athletes could sit down during the national anthem.
Actually, that’s exactly what that vet was fighting for. People that sign their lives over to the government (I was one of them) do it because they have an idealistic notion that they are fighting for the values of democracy and freedom, and that includes freedom of speech. Freedom of speech means that any person is free to say whatever they want to, not whatever you want them to. If what they say or do offends your sensibilities — even during a football match, that’s their choice. All of these people complaining about Kaepernick are no better than the speech-policing extreme left, because the only time they agree with freedom of speech is when it’s speech of which they approve.
America is for the veteran standing for the anthem and Kaepernick kneeling in defiance of it. Both took action according to what they believed to be right and just. Kaepernick probably knew he was going to be assaulted from all angles, but he did it anyway. He had the courage of his convictions and had something important to say, so he said it regardless of the consequences. This is something that almost every parent teaches their child is an admirable act — that we should stand up for what we believe to be right. Again, this is a case of it only being ok when people are standing up for something we believe in. When it’s something that conflicts with our beliefs, we can’t wait to shut the person up.
Also odd is that so many have attacked Kaepernick for being rich and privileged, and using that as a platform for his views. Does the fact that he is both of those things mean that he somehow doesn’t have the right to champion a cause he deems worthy? Why is that? We all know the answer, even if we don’t want to admit it: it’s because he’s black. If a poor black guy complains about the treatment of black people, he needs to “get a job and stop complaining.” When a rich, football playing black guy does it, people simply look for a different line of criticism. Notice how Obama hasn’t really said much during his eight years of being POTUS about the treatment of black people and minorities? It’s because he learned years ago to play the game. He’s always talked about hope and change, because it’s a feel-good message for everyone. It’s because he knows that a large number of white people can’t handle being confronted with the reality of black people’s lives.
It’s interesting that respect is brought up so often in this argument. It’s the classic conservative tactic — if you don’t respect the flag, or the anthem, then you’re against the troops. Please tell me why anyone should respect the anthem of a country which holds their people back, which disproportionately throws them in jail, and shoots them while they are reaching for an ID in their car. It isn’t about respect, it’s about the fact that people don’t like to see that maybe their worldview is inadequate, or dare I say it, unfair and privileged. It’s the same cognitive dissonance at work when we see poor, starving people in Africa on the television, and then proceed to get mad at ad agencies for making us feel guilty about the fact that there are starving people in Africa.
Lest you think I’m picking on America, and playing the role of finger-pointing outsider, we see the same thing from the mainstream here in Australia. Every year on our national holiday, known as Australia Day (somewhat analogous to your Fourth of July), we have our indigenous citizens disapprove of the celebration. They call it “Invasion Day,” because it marks the landing of the white Europeans on the shores of Australia. This was the beginning of the extermination of their culture, the theft of their land, and the diminishing of their people. We believe in freedom of speech every bit as much as Americans, but that doesn’t stop the mainstream white folk from telling the indigenous to shut the hell up and get over it every year when Australia Day rolls around. After all, we love Australia Day and things are going fine for us, so quit trying to ruin our fun and celebration with your reality.
I’m so glad to see that the defiance hasn’t ended with Kaepernick. I’m glad to see the Seattle Seahawks have showed solidarity. You know what would be great, though? If white players started showing that solidarity, too. There are plenty of white people out there who see the state of things in America, and I’m sure some of them are in the NFL. Will it change anything though? Judging by the furious response of so many to this quiet protest, probably not.
I fear that Kaepernick could be sitting out the national anthem for the rest of his life.
Peter Ross deconstructs the psychology and philosophy of the business world, careers and everyday life. You can follow him on Twitter @prometheandrive.