*Correction: An earlier version of this piece quoted writer Marcie Bianco without attribution. The piece has been updated to reflect the proper credit. Our apologies for the error.*
Freedom of speech and expression is seen as a core tenet of American society. Unfortunately, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has proven that expressing said freedom is only acceptable when you toe the line of American exceptionalism.
Kaepernick drew the ire of the faux patriotism outrage brigade when he remained seated during a preseason game on Aug. 26. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said in an interview with NFL Media.
The backlash against Kaepernick was swift, with many calling him “unpatriotic” and presidential candidate Donald Trump telling Deadspin he should “find a country that works better for him.”
Of course, many on social media have taken the less nuanced approach of calling Kaepernick the N-word. The irony is apparently lost on those who shout, “You think America is racist?! HOW DARE YOU call us racists, you stupid N****er!!”
Protests by sports figures is not a new occurrence. The most popular moment was probably during the 1968 Olympics when bronze and gold medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the “Black Power Salute” and received death threats afterward.
Writer Marcie Bianco for QZ, wrote that what Kaepernick’s protest has highlighted ” is the casual (and honestly callous) way that white America assumed black people will perform acts of profound cognitive dissonance in the name of patriotism. It is assumed, for example, that African Americans will gladly celebrate the Fourth of July, even though America’s independence was not their own. In the year of the first census in 1790, there were still 694,000 slaves.”
White America has a tendency to want black entertainers to simply shut up and dance for them. As long as black people are singing, dancing and winning sports events, we’re serving our “purpose” and they don’t want to hear anything more.
“Let’s acknowledge this criticism of Kaepernick for what it is: racism masquerading as patriotism. The criticism also highlights the daily hypocrisy that black Americans face just trying to stay alive,” wrote Marcie Bianco, a writer for QZ. “Some of the most cherished symbols of American patriotism are predicated upon moments of resistance, protest, and revolution. One would then think that Americans would applaud and respect Kaepernick’s quiet statement instead of calling him a traitor. But in the land of the free, we still seem to value the symbols that represent America over the ideals that America supposedly represents.”
One argument made by detractors is that Kaepernick disrespected our soldiers. The argument is that Americans fought and died for his freedom and that he should respect them and stand for the anthem. This facile reasoning is the antithesis of what soldiers fought and died for.
This argument implies that because they fought and died for your freedoms you should show respect and only express freedoms that they agree with, which is not freedom at all.
Kaepernick’s protest also highlights the hypocrisy of what football fans deem to be an issue worth boycotting. The hashtag #BoycottTheNFL trended on Twitter this weekend in response to his protest. However, there were no calls to boycott the NFL when Ray Rice continued to play after he “Mayweather’d” his then-fiancée Janay Rice.
There were no calls to boycott when Ben Roethlisberger was twice accused of sexual assault. According to the “true patriots,” sitting down during the national anthem is worse than violence against women.
Perhaps the greatest argument for Kaepernick’s protest came from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. himself. White America loves to use King’s words as a cudgel against black rage, telling us MLK preached togetherness, not divisiveness, and other empty words about turning the other cheek in the face of oppression.
However, in his letters from a Birmingham jail, King himself spoke these words:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.
Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
In a nation where black people are afraid to walk down the street for fear of being gunned down by police because they were wearing headphones or making eye contact, the expectation that we show unfaltering loyalty to the state is based in the need to control and dominate a group that white America sees as inferior.
Revising America’s bloody, colonizing history and rewriting the present is the new qualification for receiving the status of “patriotic.” As long as we erase the past and ignore its effect on the present, everyone is happy.
When “troublemakers” like Kaepernick dare to remind us that America is far from being the land of the free, whiteness does what it knows best and lashes out against those who dare to hold it accountable for its actions.
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