Throughout history, protest has paved the way for change, both the incremental and radical varieties. We’re all raised to revere the gumption of the Founding Fathers, with their “Live Free or Die” swagger. They stood up for their inalienable rights and, in so doing, led to the creation of this great nation. But not all forms of protest are equally revered.
A perfect example of protest that is nonviolent in nature, yet reviled, is the practice of kneeling for the National Anthem in order to bring attention to the disproportionate number of black lives ended by police officers. The act itself couldn’t be more nonviolent. The black athletes kneel when the anthem is played, and then the game goes on as planned, no disruption of regularly scheduled programming. But the backlash against this simple act was swift and immediate, with many outraged by what they called the blatant disrespect of the troops, the flag, and the nation itself.
But is that what this protest represents? Disrespect? And, if not, why is it so often framed that way?
The answer is pretty simple. In our culture, being an American is synonymous with being white. Therefore, white folks are the only ones both allowed to protest, and encouraged to do so.
Now before anyone jumps to the tired conclusion that, as a black woman, I’m just another ungrateful rabble rouser who hates this country, the flag that stands as its symbol, and the uniformed men and women who volunteer to fight and die for it, kindly slow your proverbial roll. I’m actually much more patriotic than you might assume, and there are many reasons why this is the case.
I grew up on military bases, meaning we said the pledge every morning, learned the words to every patriotic song ever created, and flew the flag 365 days a year, well before the sudden, nationwide popularization of the practice in response to the attack on September 11th. July 4th festivities brought the base to a screeching halt. Memorial Day was no joke, and it was spent honoring those who gave the ultimate sacrifice in defense of this nation and its ideals. Veterans’ Day was yet another opportunity to honor those who fought to secure the rights we take for granted on a daily basis. To say I grew up bathed in the red, white, and blue would be to utter a monumental understatement.
Growing up, I understood patriotism to mean a deep love of country, but not a blind love. Because love that isn’t paired with honest awareness of shortcomings isn’t really love. It’s a sweet form of denial that hurts the object of your affection only slightly less than it hurts you. I also understood that servicemen and women were to be honored for their willingness to put themselves in dangerous situations in order to uphold and protect the Constitution of the United States. But they are not the United States, and criticism of the government in no way equates to criticism of those who are prepared to lay down their lives for said government.
In light of all this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I consider myself a deeply patriotic individual. I love this country and, because I love it, I know how deeply flawed it is, and how much it needs to change if it’s to offer life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all its citizens. This country can be better, and I want to help it become so, lovingly but firmly. I don’t see this love of country as mutually exclusive from the right to point out its flaws. I actually think that blind love is akin to no love at all. And I categorically refuse the popular idea that you can’t honor our troops if you critique the country they’re serving.
The response to black athletes kneeling during the National Anthem is really no different from white folks criticizing the nonviolent protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Or their disdain for Muhammad Ali’s unwillingness to fight in Vietnam wearing the uniform of a country that refused to afford him the same dignity that it gave its white citizens. These men are heroes now, because they are no longer a threat to the status quo, unlike Colin Kaepernick.
If you are black in this country, there is no correct way to protest, because this country is not yours to protest to begin with. It wasn’t built for you, though it was built by you. You were never meant to possess life and liberty, nor were you to pursue happiness. This country was created to belong to white people. It’s why a common response to a black person protesting is to tell him or her to return to Africa. The subtext is clear: this country is for white folks. If you don’t like the rules in our house, go back to your own.
And because this country was made for and belongs to white people, the natural conclusion is that whiteness equates to Americanism. So, it makes sense that when a person of color criticizes the hypocrisy of a nation that purports to stand for liberty and justice for all, yet doesn’t actually extend it to everyone, so many white folks are instantly apoplectic. Here is this uppity, anti-American negro messing up things in a white person’s house! How ungrateful, amirite?! That negro should be happy to even be allowed to set foot in a house that doesn’t belong to him.
The underlying message is very clear: black folks aren’t to speak up about the injustice built into the very foundation of this country. We’re lucky to be here, and we should be grateful. Period.
Well, actually, I am grateful. I live in a country that eventually did extend the right to free speech and peaceful protest to people who look like me. White folks protest daily, and it’s often seen as deeply patriotic and worthy of widespread applause. But this country was only built to revere protest when the folks doing it are white. It’s literally America’s origin story. It’s also why it’s so hard for us to talk honestly about the Civil War. Our minds work by forming knee jerk dichotomies, and you can’t celebrate one side without demonizing the other, but, in this case, both sides are white.
Protest has a long history in this country. And, provided you keep it nonviolent, I’m all for the practice of standing up to make your voice heard and fight for what you believe in. I may not agree with you, but that’s your right. Here’s the thing, though: it’s also my right. Because whiteness shouldn’t be synonymous with what it means to be an American. There are plenty of us who love this country, but want it to be better. Not just for ourselves, but for all of us. I can’t think of a more American ideal.