Eight Mind-shifts Required to Truly Move Past the National Anthem/Kneeling Conversation
I was going back through some of my unfinished articles today, and I found a piece that I wanted to share before the context become completely irrelevant, since the Super Bowl is looming in the near future. I originally wrote this in the fall of 2017, early in the NFL season when National Anthem protests were at their peak in national exposure. While the conversation may still not be as heated/popular as it was back then, I hope that the piece still resonates with you. — MD
Today was a tipping point on my newsfeed. Over the past several months, my Facebook feed has been increasingly populated by opinion pieces about athletes kneeling during the national anthem. Most of us have likely noticed the same. Everyone seems to have an opinion about what’s happening and what’s ultimately what NEEDS to be happening. Social media — and Facebook in particular — has been trending towards this for a while now. Today, however, two things happened for me. 1: Only 2 of the first 15 posts I saw were not relating to this topic, whether people were sharing articles, videos, or statuses in an effort to “convey & sway,” and 2: A second of my family members posted about it. Both sharers are some of my closest family members.
I don’t know about you all, but there’s something that flips a switch in you when either a close friend, respected mentor, or family member posts something completely contradictory to who you thought/wished they were. Something that literally makes you pause and say, “Come on.” I differ with my family across a lot of beliefs, so that’s not a foreign feeling to me; however, to have not just one but two family members feel strongly enough to share something like that on social media is rare. So, rather than just going back and forth in a comments section within their echo chambers (which never turns out well, regardless of the platform) or sharing a passive-aggressive counter-article, I decided to write an article about exactly where I stand and why. I hope that my family and friends read this, not just with the aspirations that they may shift their perspective (though honestly, who wouldn’t love if their posts did that), but also so that they can truly take a moment to understand where I’m coming from and why.
I grew up the youngest of three in a relatively small community outside of a blue-collar town in southeastern Colorado. Growing up, our little family was what might best be described as middle-America #familygoals. On paper, we were the perfect Republican family, and my whole community and support group was also perfectly Republican. Some of you may be confused, because you may look at Colorado’s pro-weed stance and a political readout map and conclude that it as a Democratic state — which is true. However, only by a slim margin. In nearly every election of my lifetime, Colorado has been a decisive swing state. So, when reports say that it’s a Dem state, they forget to mention that historically it’s been that by no more of a margin than 10–15%. Like most states, our major metropolitan areas trend Democrat, but the rest of the state rings red. I grew up in that forest of red.
I tell you that to tell you this: The popular question I see online and on TV is, “Where did all of these Trump voters come from??”
I know where they came from. I went to school with a lot of them, and here’s the thing- they’re not all the Confederate Flag waving, gun-toting rednecks that you typically envision. They’re the coworkers you have team building exercises with. They’re your financial planners, your baristas or your cashiers at Kohls. I grew up with them. And had just a few things gone differently for me in my life, I might even have become one of them.
Because of this history, no matter how much I want it gone, I will always have that “White Voice of Justification” whispering in my ear when topics of race arise. My experience and relationships over the past 10 years have turned it into more of an annoying upstairs neighbor than a true influence, but it is still there constantly reminding me of what my (generally) white or small-town friends are actually meaning and saying when they post things. And right now, I hope that they’re reading this article. Because this entire piece is for them. Using the context of “Kneelgate” (sorry, couldn’t resist), I’ll do my best to shine some light on eight mind-shifts that need to take place before us white people will ever really be past this.
1: Stop changing the subject.
This was never about the troops, and deep down you know that. No matter how you feel about Kaep or his original protests, the movement that this has become is about one thing, pure & simple: the lingering racial inequality that most white people choose to not acknowledge because it’s not our experience. Us white folks made it about the troops/patriotism because we’re tired of talking about race. Just be honest about it. You wish people would “just stop complaining, already.” If you were really offended on behalf of the troops or if you felt like the flag was being disrespected, I encourage you to look at this list to examine your own actions. Then ask yourself if you’d be writing impassioned rants on Facebook or Twitter, condemning people using flag-inspired napkins or plates at their 4th of July BBQs, or wearing that American flag button-up to go to the rodeo. If not, it’s time to dig deeper as to why THIS particularly matters so much to you. We saw this same type of subject changing with BlackLivesMatter. Because white people didn’t know how to/want to engage with this, they created other “anti-movements,” like “#BlueLivesMatter” or “#AllLivesMatter.” The goals of these sounded noble on paper but primarily served to undermine BLM. Realistically, both of those movements should’ve supported BLM, as there are many black policemen and policewomen, and if all lives truly mattered, that would include black lives. But while the theory would indicate a support for BLM, but the real intent shined through in practice, when they basically disappeared once BLM began declining in popularity & coverage..
2: Don’t assume you know peoples’ motives.
Last year when this actually began, a common perception amongst my hometown acquaintances was the idea that Kaepernick was only protesting because he was on the bench and he was just trying to get back into the limelight. Even my “Annoying Upstairs Neighbor” was yelling at me through the floor, “Isn’t it convenient that this is making him relevant again just as he was becoming irrelevant due to his play?” To this day, it’s always in the background of these conversations- “They’re just doing it for the attention.” And that may absolutely be true for some people. We all knew that kid in high school that wore a WWJD bracelet because his friends did it and not because he needed a gentle spiritual reminder when facing tough decisions. Those people absolutely exist and I’m certain there are at least a few in this mix that might fit that bill. The danger in this mentality is the disqualification of an entire message based on your internalized assumption.
Let’s take a look at how that might play out in a different example: Say that you had a career as a radio show host. You were one of the top-rated radio hosts in the country a couple years ago, but recently your ratings have been in the tank. Then, at the same time, several people begin suddenly begin dying from preventable forms of cancer. This hits home with you, because your family has a history of this same cancer, and you yourself have lived in fear of having it as a result. So you decide to take action and leverage what platform you have left to spread a message that you believe could help millions of people in a similar boat avoid getting that form of cancer. Should people disqualify your message because the timing of this is suspicious? Should they cast aside this worthwhile cause just because they think you might be trying to get your famous status back? Or is the message more important?
Even if you think his initial reasons were selfish, look at the actual steps that he’s taken since then with things like his Million Dollar Pledge (of which he’s already reached $800k). Does the origin even matter, at this point? Isn’t equality and the right to a life free from systematic oppression more important? Isn’t that what we fight wars for all the time? Is it more important overseas than here at home?
3: Your feelings/annoyance is not worth more than other peoples’ rights.
If you think people demonstrating in protest of the state of the US today by kneeling during the national anthem is offensive or outrageous, yet you aren’t at least equally offended or outraged at the fact that they even feel that things are bad enough that they feel the need to demonstrate, you need to truly reflect on the fact that you are part of the problem. What a luxury it is for us unaffected folks to sit on the side and say, “Just shut up and play football!” and know that if they did stop that our lives would be just fine. The problem is that theirs won’t be. (And stop it with them being rich athletes. 1- Being a rich black man in America is a drastically different experience than being a rich white man in America. 2- This isn’t just about them, but their families, friends, and people who look up to them). There is a common phrase around Baby Boomers, and especially Boomers that are Republicans- They refer to Millennials (especially young progressives/liberals) as “snowflakes.” They pretend that they just need to have some thicker skin, or develop a sense of humor. “They just get offended by everything!” Really? Because you’re the person getting offended at someone taking a social stand through a peaceful protest that lasts less than 5 minutes before A FOOTBALL GAME. If that’s offensive to you, you may want to readjust your definition of a “snowflake.”
4: Equality of rights isn’t the same as equality of opportunity.
Rather than describing this, I’ll illustrate through an example:
Picture yourself entering a poker tournament. You pay your entry and sit down at a table in your assigned chair, which you notice is blue, whereas everyone else’s chairs are green. At the beginning of the game they tell you that due to the seat you were assigned you have to pay double the blinds of your competitors and if you win a hand you only get to keep about 85% of your winnings. The remaining 15% gets redistributed across the other players. It’s physically possible for you to win, but very few people who have sat in that blue seat have actually come out on top. Inevitably, no matter how well you play, you slowly start to lose ground on the other players around you. Finally, between you and the other people in your same seat across the other tables, you make enough of a ruckus about this unfair rule that you get the rules changed. Finally, you’re on the same footing with your competitors when it comes to the rules. But, at this point, you’ve only got a quarter of the chips of everyone else at the table. So, you and a couple of other frustrated people in your same situation (or worse) ask for a restart since we’re now all playing by the same rules, and obviously it was unfair before. The tournament judges say that you’d need an overwhelming majority of the tournament participants to agree to that in order to get a restart. The problem is that more than 2/3 of the other players benefitted from the previous rules and as a result, don’t mind that you are in the situation you’re in now. Sure, you may get a few honest people or really confident players that are willing to join you and your fellow blue-chairers, but overall the feedback you hear is, “Look, we already took a bunch of time out to make the rules the same for everyone. If you’re that good, you’ll be able to catch up and win anyway.” On top of that, you’ve got some green chair people who are down on their chips from playing by the old rules that think that you should shut up because they have it just as hard as you, and you should stop asking for help/“freebies” because they aren’t. What do you do? This current environment may be equal according to the letter of the law, but it’s obviously unfair because of how far back you are essentially starting out. Imagine trying to make things truly equitable in a game where most of the other players are desperately trying to hold onto what’s left of the inherent advantage they previously had, and who think that things are already fair enough and you just need to deal with your tough luck. Now read those last two sentences and replace “game” with “world” and “players” with “people.”
5: Don’t confuse nationalism with patriotism.
Patriotism: “love for or devotion to one’s country”
Nationalism: “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranationalgroups”
Too many of my old friends and acquaintances parade nationalism under the guise of patriotism, thinking that challenging us to be better — or even thinking that we can be better, for that matter — is heresy of the highest order and it implies that you hate your country. Caring about the statues of a not-so-glorious past, fiction & lore around founding fathers, and projecting international superiority have become more important than caring for the people within the country. When the concept of the country becomes more important to you than the people living within it, you’ve officially transitioned from patriotism to nationalism.
6: Stop pretending that protesting isn’t “legitimate” because it’s not “doing anything.”
A common complaint I hear from anti-protesters (which was a hilarious word to write), is the fact that they feel like protesting is pointless. “If you really care about making a change, you should go out and actually DO something about it.” My question always becomes, “Like what? What would you suggest?” I ask this because to even make that statement, there is a foundational assumption that these people have not been doing anything, which is a wildly unfounded, and often incorrect, assumption to make. And even when this is the first/only step that people are taking to make change, protesting, marching, and generally demonstrating is one of the most productive peaceful means of conveying unity for a group that is being underrepresented or dismissed. It calls attention to the fact that it does indeed matter to people — that there is, in fact, a problem here. It lays the foundation for informed conversation at levels that can truly impact change. The sense of entitlement that emanates from people that are annoyed that some streets have been shut down/they had to listen to some people shouting things they disagree with, when contrasting this against the experience of people who have been pushed so far that they feel the need to demonstrate, is palpable.
7: “Better than it was,” is not good enough.
This is one of the biggest copouts in history- that we’ve come far enough, or “I don’t think you all appreciate how good [INSERT GENERALIZED GROUP] have it now compared to when I grew up…”
Cool. Glad we’re progressing. Now stop using past progress as a means to slow down future progress. We can always be better, and the America I was raised to believe in was founded on that idea. Also, see the example in number four for more reasons why better isn’t good enough.
8: Stop creating monoliths.
As humans, we have a nasty habit of “bucketizing” people- meaning we stick a label on them and then they are only allowed to be that thing in our minds (Actor, singer, Republican, mother, etc). People are complex. YOU are complex. So are athletes. Sports are played by athletes, who are people. Stop complaining that politics and sports are intersecting. Until the Robot Football League launches (which will inevitably happen by 2080, I’m calling it), try to accept the fact that athletes are people doing a job, just like you when you head to your desk. Their social status and income level don’t disqualify them from their humanity. They have the right to be pissed off about the way things are, just like you and me. And if they want to use their platform to talk about issues that matter to them, it’s just like you hopping onto your Twitter or blog and ranting. You just want to “watch the game in peace?” They’d love to be able to feel the sense of ease that you feel on a regular basis, even when you’re not “relaxing.”
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is, next time you feel your blood starting to boil or your annoyance meter rising, put things into perspective. Stop making assumptions about things you don’t actually know. And most of all, look in the mirror long and hard first.
Also published on Medium!