We Need to Talk About How We Talk About Colin Kaepernick

Photograph by Getty Images
SEATTLE – SEPTEMBER 15: Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers watches from the sidelines against the Seattle Seahawks on September 15, 2013 at Century Link Field in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick rose to fame last month when he started kneeling during the national anthem in protest of the lack of accountability against police officers killing innocent people, especially people of color. His reasoning is simple… “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told the NFL media after his first kneeling. Many players have begun to join Kaepernick in solidarity.


Of course, his protest hasn’t only been met with support. Many (predominantly White) people have called Kaepernick’s use of his right to free speech disgusting and unpatriotic, despite that being exactly what our founding fathers fought for. Some Republicans have appealed to totalitarian school of thought, hinting that people should be forced to salute their flag. Deplorable confederate-flag-flying has-been Kid Rock shouted “F*ck Colin Kaepernick” while playing his song “Born Free,” in Boston this week, and the irony is just too much. Congressman Steve King even called Kapernick an “ISIS Sympathizer,” because why not, right?


But the discussion on patriotism is distracting everyone from the issue at hand: the discrimination of people of color in the United States.


Ignoring what Kaepernick is actually saying with his protest and making it about respecting America is something that’s easy to do when you benefit from white privilege, and that’s exactly what is going on. People are ignoring the outcry of a person of color and attacking him, taking refuge in the idea of being patriotic. But what is that?


When we salute the American flag, sing the national anthem and honor our founding fathers, we are idolizing people who owned slaves. Kaepernick’s protest, though it is immediately of modern American racism, is rooted in American history itself, and so skipping a ritual that honors that history only seems appropriate. Our flag was sewn by a slave owner, our patriotic presidents – who are on our currency along with mention of “God” – owned slaves, and redeeming these sins should not be easy for a person of color. So how can you expect that of them? While people who benefit from white privilege are celebrating revolution and freedom when they partake in traditionally American rituals, people of color are being asked to commemorate a history of violence and body snatching against their people.


Let me make this as simple as I can: when you attack Colin Kaepernick on the basis of “not being patriotic,” while white, you are benefitting from white privilege, and though you may not identify as a racist, you are contributing to a culture that tips the scales in your favor. I don’t need to show you the statistics, Black People are constantly and disproportionately wronged by our inherently racist criminal justice system, and Kaepernick is patriotically (yeah, I said it) speaking out against this injustice.


Here’s another choice. If you’re someone like me and you benefit from white privilege but wish it weren’t so, why not use it to get rid of it… in other words, why not stand in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. As a white person who cares I feel responsibility to encourage others to listen to what is being said with these national anthem protests, and it’s ironically because of my privilege that people will actually listen to what I have to say on the matter. Take it upon yourself to sit during the pledge of allegiance or national anthem. That’s as patriotic as you can get: sacrificing your privilege with hopes of attaining the perfectly equal society we envision when we think of liberty. That can start on campus; we can sit down or take a knee during the pledge of allegiance at assemblies. That’s what I plan to do. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but white people, it’s on us to help out and make noise.


If we’re truly going to celebrate the ideas of our founding fathers, of all men being created equal and of a more perfect union, it’s time to open up conversation and listen to what Kaepernick has to say, and I pledge to force people to open their ears.