Since the start of the 2016-2017 National Football League season, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has refused to stand for the playing of the American national anthem before games, in protest of what he believes to be prejudicial treatment of African-Americans and other minority groups by the United States government. In light of the recent spate of unjustified police killings of unarmed black men, the disproportionate incarceration of African-American men compared to other racial groups, and evidence to suggest that institutional racism is still present in American society, there is much that Kaepernick can point to as justification for his position.
Whilst he has received some strong support from segments of the community that recognise his right to freedom of speech, in other quarters there has been firm condemnation and even outrage over the way in which he has chosen to express his views. Despite the non-violent nature of his protest, the tone of this opposition centres around the belief that he is acting unpatriotically, by not standing to honour the servicemen and women of the US military, and the sacrifices that they have made to preserve the freedoms that American citizens like Kaepernick enjoy and prosper from. Other criticisms that have been levelled at him are that he is cop-bashing, ill-informed about the issues surrounding his stance, and that as a multi-million dollar professional athlete who lives an opulent lifestyle, he is far removed from the type of oppressive behaviour which impacts those much less fortunate than him, and therefore he has no real credibility in speaking on the topic.
In observing this controversy and how it has unfolded, it has become clear to me that at the root of the dissention concerning Kaepernick’s stand to not stand, is the disparity of meaning that Americans ascribe to their flag. With each citizen occupying a unique position within the societal landscape, it is easy to comprehend why these differences exist. We view the world through the lens of our experience, and that experience is shaped by among other things, our racial and cultural profile, where we live, whom we live and associate with, what resources we have at our disposal, and the opportunities that those resources present to us. A middle-aged white woman living in Delaware will experience living in America very differently than a young black man who has grown up in the inner city of Chicago, or a Hispanic grandfather who lives in New Mexico. Adding in other social, demographic and environmental factors to these comparisons, and the gulf that separates our lived experience only seems to part further.
Even as we seek to change ourselves to change the world that we experience for the better, others in it will often respond to us negatively, indifferently or with suspicion as to our motives. Perceiving a threat to the experience of life in which they find such comfort and a sense of identity, these detractors will readily evoke their defences and attempt to shoot us down in order to make themselves right. Embodying the mantra that attack is the best form of defence, the lengths that these people will go to in order to make their point, will on many occasions, far exceed the bounds that capture the position of the person whose views or behaviour they object to. In this process, the first casualty becomes not the person who is being targeted, but the truth and legitimacy of their position. As it relates to Kaepernick’s protest, what these detractors are failing or choosing not to see is that regardless of how they may try to change the narrative surrounding his actions, the reasons that drive them are valid and need to be listened to, acknowledged and most importantly acted upon by those who have the ability to effect change and create a more equitable and prosperous society. I am not only referring to politicians here. I am speaking to you. I am speaking to us.
Here, we would all do well to integrate the wisdom of the late Stephen Covey, who challenged us to seek first to understand, then to be understood. In order to take such a courageous step, we must consciously subdue our ego, with its predilection for judgement and asserting ourselves upon others. In the space that is created by taking this step, we can enter the world of another, not fully but meaningfully, to find a bridge of understanding, and perhaps, if we are willing to stand on that bridge long enough, we can glimpse a truth that brings clarity to the confusion that our unconsciousness perpetuates in the world.
As I listen to the message behind our protagonist’s actions, I understand and acknowledge that something is very wrong and urgently needs to change. As a Caucasian male who is 37 years old, I have never known what it is like to be discriminated against, or deprived of opportunities to better myself and the quality of my life, and I know that if I am pulled over by the police on my way home from work tonight, I am next to guaranteed to make it home to my wife and daughter. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. There is a clear threat to justice everywhere. We should know. Colin Kaepernick is telling us that.