It’s amazing to how quickly Black people’s protest can become an argument between white people. When it comes to the NFL protests during the national anthem, Trump pretty much assured it would take the usual political pattern with his ridiculously inappropriate comments last weekend. Suddenly, white billionaire owners who couldn’t be bothered to hire Colin Kaepernick, no matter how bad their starting quarterbacks are, were standing arm-in-arm with their team members.
Nevertheless, as I have observed the Facebook arguments playing out between my white friends and family, they seem to fall into distinct camps.
The people who are offended about the protests say they are insulting to service men and women, and to veterans, particularly those who died defending our country. The majority of my friends, being white liberals like myself, support the protests as a statement against systemic racism, and invoke free speech as the most sacred of American rights the flag is supposed to stand for.
Kaepernick and other Black football players’ protests bring up very legitimate concerns about systemic racism and police brutality. At the risk of distracting from those concerns, I want to pose some questions the opposing sides of the white reaction to these protests. Maybe if we can understand our own reactions, we can be more supportive of the issues these athletes have raised.
To my liberal white friends: Is it possible for well-meaning Americans to object to protests during the national anthem without being closet racists? Could it be that for some Americans, public rituals like honoring the flag and playing the national anthem are the kind of community-binding practices that hold us together as a nation and not a time for individual statements, no matter how important?
To my conservative white friends: Can you say with all honesty, searching your heart, that people of color—particularly Black people and Native Americans—have been given an equal place in the community this public ritual symbolizes? If your ancestors had been brought here in shackles and endured 400+ years of bigotry, would you feel as strongly about the flag and the anthem? Might you have at least a few qualms about participating in patriotic rituals and displays of Americanism?
To my liberal white friends: If we really admit it, isn’t part of the issue that we are not as passionate about the symbolism of this country? And does our lack of devotion to American symbolism come from a place of privilege? Do we not “need” the flag, the Star Spangled Banner, the mythology of duty and sacrifice as much because we have been largely successful on our own terms?
To my conservative white friends: Many of you identify as Christian. How does the veneration of the flag, the playing of the national anthem, and the projection of military strength at major sporting events fit within your theology? Is it possible these features of secular life have become idolatry to many Americans?
To my liberal white friends: Many of us have an ambivalent relationship with the military. Yet in many underprivileged communities, military service is a way to find a steady job or to pay for college. In fact, people of color serve in disproportionate numbers in the military. Ironically, the military may be a safer place to be than the communities some of its recruits come from. Would you look at the military and displays of patriotism differently if you realized they represented the struggles, sacrifices, and deaths of people of color and less-privileged whites?
To my conservative white friends: How appropriate is it to honor the sacrifices of the men and women of our military at a sporting event like a football game, which is loud, brash, boozy, and violent? Is a fan in face paint wearing a wedge of cheese on his head who’s being drinking since before noon really thinking about the finer points of being an American? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to display patriotism at special times like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, or July 4th?
To my white liberal friends: If a public ritual that many find sacred is an appropriate place to protest the injustices of our country, what kind of public ritual would not be an appropriate place? A family event like a wedding or a funeral? A moment of silence in memory of a tragedy? Is there any public ritual that we hold sacred in which a sudden and disruptive protest might bring about the level of pain or dismay that the national anthem protests do for some of our fellow citizens?
To my white conservative friends: If your child, brother, father, or friend—or even just someone in your community—was killed by police or any other government agent, and you felt they were innocent, how far would you be willing to go to protest that injustice?
To my white liberal friends: Would you be as supportive of the right to free speech of athletes to protest anytime, anywhere if it was for a position you didn’t agree with? What if an evangelical Christian player knelt in a protest of abortion or same-sex marriage?
To my white conservative friends: What is the difference between the celebrated kneeling of Tim Tebow and the rejected kneeling of Colin Kaepernick? Considering his publicly stated faith, is it possible Kaepernick also began kneeling out of a sense of Christian duty?
True story: I actually saw a picture in a national publication of a young white woman at a protest holding up a sign that said, “White people your feelings don’t matter!” I believe what she was trying to say was a variation on the slogan, “Black lives matter more than white feelings.” But the misquote struck me as funny. Who are these “white people” this white woman was talking to? Was she saying her own feelings didn’t matter or just white people who were less aware of racism than her?
I bring this up because I think white people’s feelings do matter. Not that we need to burden our people of color friends with our “feelings” about issues of race and discrimination. But we do need to be aware of where we’re coming from, and discuss our emotions about our shifting culture among ourselves. Both reflexive “woke” whiteness and reflexive reactionary whiteness are coping mechanisms we exhibit as white people facing our future as a race among races, a people among peoples, as the demographic balance of America shifts. We ignore our feelings at our peril.