Colin Kaepernick doesn’t need me.

Colin Kaepernick doesn’t need me. He’s plenty strategic, utterly persistent and clearly a person of deep integrity who’s doing just fine without my help. Look at how much has changed on the NFL sidelines since he first took that barely noticed seat, which soon turned into a widely-noticed knee.

More importantly, look at how much his action has changed our public discussion.

(Of course, let’s not forget. Even while Kaepernick is all of these powerful things, he’s also unemployed. He’s paid a serious price for his courage. And he’s in good company here. Rosa Parks was never consistently employed again after she took her seat. The fact is, what was true back then remains the case now: white people know how to make folks pay when they insist on shedding light on and telling the truth about the plight of Black Americans in public forums.)

But, even though Kaeprnick doesn’t need me, some white folks might. I map out parts of #takeaknee here because, even among those of us inclined to say we’re empathetic to the struggle for racial justice, some of us are struggling to understand it.

And it’s worth understanding.

Because white folks (lots of us) are talking about it. So those of us who are justice-committed need to jump on this opportunity to take up this conversation with our families and friends. Especially as many of us get ready to sit down for Thanksgiving table talk.

So, I hope this five point “map” helps us do that.

 

  1. Protests almost always upset people. In fact, if a protest doesn’t upset somebody it’s probably not that effective. By design, protests shake things up so people have to see and feel something about an issue they’ve been, prior to that point, content to remain oblivious. Responses like “I’m okay with ‘x’ protest but do it in a way that it isn’t ‘disruptive,’ ‘in my face,’ ‘so controversial’, or [fill in the blank],” just miss the point. It’s better to get folks worked up then have them remain apathetic.

So, here is the point: the fact NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem has upset a lot of people is not evidence it’s disrespectful. (White people were really mad at Rosa Parks too.) Quite the contrary. It’s evidence it’s smart and maybe even that it’s working.

 

  1. This protest is not, fundamentally, about DT and free speech. The weekend DT unleashed his jaw-dropping tweet storm about NFL owners firing protestors, another tweet worth noticing came from Bree Newsome. Newsome—the also courageous activist who scaled the flag pole outside the South Carolina statehouse to remove the Confederate flag herself—wrote, “Don’t allow racists to reframe #TakeAKnee as being a debate about anthem & flag. It’s a protest of police brutality & racism . . .”

 

Kaepernick—and ostensibly those now following his lead—was shedding light about the reality that basic rights, dignity and well-being, which Black people should be able to expect given what we say we value as a nation, are systemically compromised and denied (to put it mildly).

That’s why Kaepernick kicked this off. That’s why it’s important Newsome’s point keeps being made.

That same point (that this is about racism) is also why Kaepernick’s choice of protest made such brilliant sense. To people asking “By why kneeling? Shouldn’t honoring the flag be sacred?” here’s one answer. The pledging and singing we do around the flag or the anthem is symbolic. It’s a ritual that’s supposed to mean we’re honoring and pausing to appreciate the deeper rights and values that the flag and the anthem supposedly represent—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So, imagine you’re an American who has to fear for your child’s life every time they simply stay out late at a party, merely because they’re Black ; if you’re an American who cannot count on those deepest, basic rights being ensured; participating in this symbolic moment might feel worse than disingenuous. It might even feel coercive. Your body—the same body that’s exposed and vulnerable to violence the state can’t or won’t rein in no matter how much body camera footage we have—is “peer pressured” to physically participate in an act symbolizing unity and demonstrating gratitude for rights you and your community don’t actually experience.

Kneeling in such a moment makes perfect sense.

This protest is brilliant because it physically acts out—through itself engaging in a symbolic action—the actual brokenness that in fact exists right now in our collective civic body.

This protest is about Black people’s lives. It’s about bodies which keep being broken. Over and over again.

 

  1. This protest is—or, has become—also about something else. DT upped the stakes. Players’ responses appropriately expanded the meaning of this protest after DT used the power of the presidency to spew violent rhetoric in an attack on Black athletes. The language in his Alabama stump speech (“son of a b*tch”) and his subsequent fuselage of tweets was an attack on Black people. It hearkened back to the violence DT willingly stirred into a frenzy in his pre-election rallies. Remember? When he would talk about what “we” would have done to “them” back in the “good old days.” Meanwhile his base, physically assaulted Black and brown protestors (we have footage of this too) while expelling them from his rallies. His speech and tweets strengthened and furthered the assault he has perpetrated on communities of color (both verbally and through executive orders) week-after-after in relentless forms since the day he took office.

More football players didn’t start kneeling with Kaepernick because they suddenly realized racism and police violence against Black people is a problem. More football players started kneeling, because DT came for them directly and they could not but, (and, I hope, cannot but continue), to publicly refuse to stand down in the face of such a racialized attack.

I only wish more white football players would show they care about this too, by physically putting their bodies on the line with their teammates.

 

  1. Meanwhile, this whole thing does have something to do with free speech; it does now anyway. At the center remains race (as we can all see in the abhorrent language of the Houston Texans owner). At the center is the question of whether Black people have the right to free speech and whether white Americans will rally around that right.

This whole thing is another sinister display of this president’s autocratic and authoritarian preferences generally. A president calling for firings in violation of the first amendment? Frankly, it’s horrifying (and scary) that more of us—whatever our racial identity—aren’t unified in our outrage against that. But it’s also frighteningly telling (as has been the whole Trump-era) about our “weak spot.”

To whatever extent this democratic republic is exploitable, to whatever extent we’re willing to go along as our most basic constitutional rights are violated and ignores, it’s going to happen around race.

If “we” ultimately decide we’re willing to tolerate the most blatant, abuse of presidential power coming in the form of attacks on free speech it’s clear to me that it’s because it’s come in the form of racial attacks on Black people.

So here we are.

This moment we are in will either be undoing as a nation. Or, if we so choose (and some of us are choosing), it will be the beginning of creating a truly just and multi-racial future where we all belong. That is a future for which people of color have been working for a long, long time. And it’s a future we could collectively achieve if more of us who are white would put some real skin in the game.

 

  1. The stakes are very clear.

Thanks to Kaepernick and his strategic, persistent, integrity and courage, the meaning of the national anthem and the flag are completely up for discussion right now.

So, let’s win the argument about who we want to be.

Given how this has all unfurled we should all be taking a knee right now. And explaining to our fellow white folks why. Whatever. Chance. We. Get.

 

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