Colin Kaepernick has landed in hot water and not for being a mediocre quarterback. During a pre-season game he chose not to stand during the United States National Anthem. He chose not to stand because, in his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” An almost mundane choice. He’s a pro athlete making a political point, and he’s not the first one.
Yet, his refusal to stand for a song and a piece of cloth has ignited a firestorm, met mostly with criticism. It’s hard to find anyone truly sympathetic to Kaepernick’s cause, mostly because people are either enraged by his actions or apathetic towards the man himself. The conservatives hate his lack of patriotism while the liberals are too cynical to believe he’s doing this out of sincerity (but doing it because he was bumped to second string).
Removing Kaepernick from the equation, his act of protest and people’s subsequent responses betrays two bigger issues in our nation: 1) We’re too “patriotic,” in reality we are nationalistic and (2) we hold athletes of color to a higher expectation of patriotism than we hold white athletes.
To the first point, there’s a danger when we let our national identity intersect and mold our personal identity. To a certain extent it’s nearly impossible not to let our national identity influence who we are as individuals. I am, after all, a product of America. My accent, my beliefs, my cultural participation is in many ways tied to my being an American. And I’d argue that I am a patriot. I love the idea of America, I love the idea of freedom for all, I love what this nation (on paper) stands for. But being a patriot does not mean I have to be a nationalist. A nationalist will support his country no matter what, but a patriot is willing to point out its flaws and even admit to being disappointed in his nation.
I’d contend that Kaepernick, if we excuse ourselves from cynicism, is a patriot. He loves his nation, otherwise he wouldn’t protest in the hopes of change. True hatred for America wouldn’t ask for protest, but an overthrow. True hatred of America would require apathy to its flaws. Yet, nationalism prevents us from recognizing flaws in our nation, unless we first label those flaws as “outside.” One can think of how people [erroneously] say Obama is a shame to our nation, that they can’t be proud while he’s in charge. But a nationalist says this only after first claiming Obama isn’t actually from our nation, or at least claiming that his ideas aren’t American in origin. Therefore, the shame he feels for his nation isn’t for his nation, but for what his nation is becoming. And yet, without any sense of irony, he will berate and attack anyone who would question typical patriotic icons such as the flag, the anthem, and so on. Ultimately, the nationalist isn’t so much loyal to his nation as he’s loyal to the ideology behind his vision of what the nation should be, thus anyone who violates this ideology is immediately a heretic and worthy of being purged.
Our nationalism in the United States is often best seen as “white nationalism,” mostly because anyone who is not white is automatically suspected of being anti-American for any form of protest. Often, non-whites are left having to prove that they’re Americans, especially black athletes. We see this with Kaepernick, but it wasn’t that long ago that we were criticizing other black athletes for not being American enough. And by not that long ago I mean about two to three weeks ago with Gabby Douglas. She forgot or just chose not to put her hand over her heart when the American flag was displayed. The rage was so hot that other black female Olympians were often chastised on Facebook with people confusing them with Gabby Douglas. When other white Olympians failed to do the same, there was absolutely no outcry.
Notice the verbiage used for both Douglas and Kaepernick; “how dare you not respect the flag of a country that gave you an opportunity, that gave you freedom, that gave you…” It’s difficult to not imagine a slave owner saying something similar to a slave, “How dare you not be grateful for me when I’ve given you food.” The fact is, this nation didn’t give these black athletes anything. They worked hard, they shaped their bodies and talents and pushed themselves to such a level of competition that they’ve excelled at what they do (well, relatively speaking; Kaepernick is riding the bench after all). Yet, we require that these black athletes show 100% solidarity and respect to a piece of cloth, but do not place the same standard on white athletes. We can say we do, but we don’t. That we have racial inequality in our country, that we’re not living up to our ideals as a nation, is a good reason to protest the nation. Sitting during the national anthem is a good way to protest the current reality of racial inequality in our nation.
A true patriot will always love the ideals of his country, but will recognize her flaws. This allows for a duality of respect. One patriot can see a flag and show respect, because that flag represents certain ideals and the patriot wants to respect those ideals. Another patriot can see the flag and view it as representing the current reality, and therefore choose not to respect it. In both instances, each person is right and each person is still patriotic. Both respect and protest are signs of patriotism. Neither is right and neither is wrong. The fact is, as a nation we have some deep and troubling systemic flaws that continue the oppression entire ethnic groups. But we recognize these actions as flaws because we realize that our actions contradict our ideals, or at least we ought to recognize such a thing. Sometimes it takes a drastic protest to shine a light on our flaws. Perhaps we ought to examine the message of Kaepernick before we shoot the messenger. After all, how patriotic is it to hate someone for exercising his right to free speech? Only a nationalist could allow such cognitive dissonance.
We do have a problem with racial inequality. Perhaps there are better ways to draw attention to that, but what are they? We’ve had this problem since before we were a nation and we’ve never fixed it. We attempt to sweep it under the rug like it doesn’t exist. But it does exist and it is a problem. Rather than complaining about someone protesting or the manner in which he protests, perhaps we’d be better served to listen to the message and to work to make sure our policies align with our ideals. Such an action is far more patriotic than any national anthem or pledge of allegiance.