Now that former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick’s protest has been gentrified by arm locking, kneeling before the anthem and praying (OK, that last one was just one guy, but still ... ), everyone has been trying to explain the logic behind “taking a knee.”
They say it brings awareness to injustice and inequality. Some argue that Kaepernick was using his platform to start a conversation about race in America. Others say it was about police brutality and had nothing to do with a piece of cloth or a 200-year-old poem set to music.
Those people are wrong.
Kaepernick had been sitting during the national anthem for two games before someone asked him about it. He didn’t tell the media his plans. After a San Francisco preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, NFL.com’s Steve Wyche specifically asked Kap about it. Here’s what he said:
On sitting during the anthem:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
—Aug. 26, 2016
Over the past year, people have tried to whitesplain taking a knee with gobbledygook about America’s need to have a conversation about the underprivileged, inherent bias, or anything that’s not about the flag, the anthem or race. What began as a radical, obstinate statement of resistance and truth has been “All Lives Mattered” by people trying to make it palatable for white America. It was always about race. It was always about the flag. It was always about the anthem.
He. Said. What. He. Said.
If you could peer into the hearts and minds of black people in America, you would find that we have always been, at the very least, conflicted about the flag. It has nothing to do with hating this country, but it has everything to do with the unavoidable knowledge that the Stars and Stripes have always billowed blindly over the centuries of beating and brutality that black people have endured.
For us, it is a duality. It simultaneously represents the birthright of our oppressors and the perfect freedom to which we aspire. It stands for the constitutional justification for our subjugation and the laws we invoke to argue for our liberty. It is the rope they used to lynch us and the tourniquet we used to stymie our bleeding. The flag symbolizes a superpower assembled on white supremacy. It is the emblem for the nation that black people built from scratch with our own bruised backs and callused hands.
Many of us stand during the national anthem out of habit. We recite the Pledge of Allegiance because it is instilled in us. Not because we love it, but because it is tradition. Because standing and saluting is less troublesome than sitting or kneeling. We don’t hate it, but we also don’t swoon when it is unfurled. Black people don’t despise the flag, but many of us also don’t feel a swell of pride when we see it wave because we know—for us—this home has never been free or brave.
This is not new. The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass stood in front of a crowd of white women 165 years ago at the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society’s Independence Day Celebration and told them this:
What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July?
I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.
—July 5, 1852
Colin Kaepernick was courageous and bold enough to do what many of us have long felt in our hearts. His initial act was a statement of unabashed truth. It was not about a conversation. It was not about “awareness.” It was about America. He knows that song was never meant for our mouths. That flag has never been ours. It is theirs.
Much of white America has fashioned patriotism and love for country into a sanctimonious morality that borders on religious, but we have always been agnostic about their star-spangled demigod. Kaepernick simply wasn’t afraid to keep his eyes open and head unbowed when they hailed their red-white-and-blue savior.
And it was most definitely about race. The only reason there aren’t more players taking a knee is the perception that accompanies it. To be fair, there are many players who revere the iconography of the United States, but many others just don’t want the backlash. They don’t need the trouble. They are just there to play a game.
Yet every single one of those players knows a simple truth that black people live with: Existing in America comes with the implicit agreement that there are some things a black person cannot and should not do, simply because of how it will be perceived by white people. That is not an indictment of anyone—black or white. It is a fact.
It’s the reason we code-switch; it’s why some black women at Fortune 500 companies accept the pain and misery of chemically destroying their scalps; why almost every black man subconsciously adjusts his posture and demeanor so that people won’t feel threatened or intimidated. It’s not because white America is racist ...
... it’s because white America is white.
Even those without a racist bone in their body will scorn protest and any method of upsetting the apple cart. They revere their symbology and are averse to conflict. They do not consider themselves white supremacists, but those who say the anthem “is not the right time” for kneeling, or advocate locking arms and other milquetoast methods of protest, are participating in white supremacy. They might not know it, but even the acceptable, Caucasian-approved king of “What would he say?” put it this way:
On the white moderate’s acceptance of protest:
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor 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 that 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 good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
—Martin Luther King Jr., “LETTER FROM BIRMINGHAM JAIL,” April 16, 1963
So please stop the arm locking and the other empty gestures. Cease saying that Colin Kaepernick’s act of courage had nothing to do with race, the anthem or the flag. It most certainly was about all of those things. It was about so much more than those things, but erasing the defiance of his message does not serve any cause. Making it palatable for white people not only neuters its power but also does a disservice to Kaepernick’s courage, the movement he inspired, and the overall fight for justice and equality.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with standing for the anthem, but don’t participate in the erasure of his protest by taking away the crux of the message. If you take a knee, know it is about black people. Know it is about the flag. Know it is about America.
He said it.
If you say or do anything else, you’re doing it wrong.