By Javis Ogden
America is entrenched in an ideological war of wills to determine whether NFL players kneeling during the national anthem is anti-American, or an American-given right to peacefully protest. We can thank president Donald Trump for that. What began as a protest with deference to American troops and the military in order to shed light on racial inequality has been trounced. Now, it’s a discourse over what constitutes appropriate forms of protest, and where the line is drawn between that and disrespect for the country, flag, military, etc.
This distraction was already in place throughout the year that this topic, in lieu of Kaepernick’s decision to pioneer the movement, has been discussed. Still, it took firm control of the conversation when President Donald Trump made some scathing remarks in the way of how NFL owners should react to him, or any other players, who decide to follow suit.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
Damn; and like a moth to a flame, the national conversation about what these anthem protests truly mean became hijacked by those who want to talk about how these protests lament anti-American sentiment and disrespect, instead of the actual meaning of them, which is about bringing to light systemic social systems of oppression that have disenfranchised black people and poor minority groups.
I won’t give Trump credit for doing this intentionally. As I’ve stated in the past, the social justice warrior contingent in America that fights the good fight for racial and social equality are the loudest and most active on social media, therefore it would seem as though they represent the majority mindset. But as we’ve seen via the 2016 Presidential election and the quickness with which this dialog shifted from being one about social justice to one about American pride and respect, the often-conservative crowd who wants no part of talking about racial equality (let alone set against the backdrop of their sports), remains the silent yet ACTIVE majority.
In this sense, Trump was merely speaking to a base who had already made their feelings clear that they don’t care about what the kneelers claim the kneeling to mean; that what it means to them is that doing so is a show of disrespect for America and its fighting men and women. Nevermind the fact that Kaepernick himself said it wasn’t about the flag or the military, but a way to force discourse on these very real and very prominent issues. Rather, this was about the military and a show of respect for our country.
Trump believes this as well, and as such was just lending incredible credence to that sentiment as the President of the United States. He gave that side of the argument more juice, but didn’t pour the initial glass. Therefore, he gets no credit from me for being smart enough to intentionally deflect the narrative.
What makes this dichotomy of American pride versus a fight for racial/social equality so interesting is why there is such an ardent motive on the part of detractors to make this about respecting the country when the person who started the protests has exclaimed on several occasions that it has nothing to do with that. Why are you so eager to keep the magnifying glass squarely fixed on protesters’ disdain for America when what they’re asking for is to civilly discuss social injustice? I believe that a human emotive known as white guilt is at play here.
White guilt is a term that I use to describe white people’s reluctance to take part in productive discussions on race with non-white people because of the country’s past of organized and overt racism, pretty much all which was perpetrated by white people.
Most white people are sensitive to this. Consequently, they opt to either be passive or nonexistent participants in race discussions because they know that ultimately the conversation can always be taken back to the fact that the genesis of the disenfranchisement of black people can be levied at white America’s employment of systemic racist institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow. In essence, that the plight of black people in America is their fault individually.
While white Americans may not actually believe that the plight of black Americans is their fault individually, they nevertheless realize that “white America” is a term that is used to describe the collective institution that is the caucasian race, and its status as the majority group that has had an historic head start when it comes to access to resources, education, and the various other components one must acquire to obtain generational wealth and thereby true freedom.
White people know this, yet individually, they cannot offer up any semblance of remorse or back-pay that can account for just how much they’ve benefitted from said head start. Nor can they offer up any semblance of remorse or back-pay for just how much the lack of that head start has been so detrimental to the progression of black people. This is their guilt. Hence, their only recourse is to remain passive or silent in deference to the black voice.
On the surface, this deference may satisfy those who fight on the side of racial equality because it comes off as a listening ear. In actuality, however, that deference stymies true change because the largest participating group in the conversation isn’t truly permitted to speak their peace because they fear doing so might be followed by claims that they are either insensitive to the issue at hand, or outright racist. They don’t want to be called a racist just because they are white and have an opinion about black or brown people, so instead of getting involved at all, they default to getting into a different conversation entirely. This is how the guilt leads to the misdirection of the narrative.
Trump’s remarks about kneeling NFL players exemplifies this to a tee. Kaepernick took a knee and made white people uncomfortable with the advent of talking about racial inequality, and since they don’t want to traverse down that rabbit hole that will inevitably get them labeled as insensitive or racist, they have decided to make this a national referendum on what it means to be respectful towards the country and the military. It’s the perfect diversion. Once again, Kaepernick himself said that it wasn’t about disrespect for the military and the country, and yet here we remain with this issue.
I am then left with the question: what is the solution to all of this? How do we repair the seemingly irreparable so that we can begin to enact true change when it comes to racial and social injustice? In my opinion, that solution is two-pronged.
First and foremost, I believe in accountability. The most poignant solution that I can offer is that we on the side who do pine for racial equality, and understand (and experience) the threat that racism continues to pose to true freedom, actually allow white people – as well as any other person who ascribes to views that aren’t perfectly aligned with our own – to have a viewpoint and be critical when necessary without having to be concerned with accusations of racism.
I have seen plenty of examples throughout sports and society in which a white person makes benign, critical remarks about a black person only to be called a bigot and a racist due to the fact that the comments were made by a white person. This is unfair. They should be allowed to speak. There is a difference between comments that are actually racist, and benign comments that if spoken by a non-white person would yield no such reaction. Social justice warriors have no problem saying what they feel without fear of being marginalized because they look the way they look and dared to speak. The same courtesy should be afforded both ways.
I should stress that I am referring to those of a reasonable mindset who come with sound, informed, and educated opinions. Yes, the fringe are out there. We’ve seen it rear its ugly head yet again with the recent situation with Terrelle Pryor. To those individuals, the swiftest kick through the doorway to hell can be given. True racists be damned, but not every white/non-black person with an opinion on social and racial issues that doesn’t perfectly align with the masses is a racist. See ESPN’s Will Cain (a person I rarely agree with) as an example. Stop using your Twitter fingers, and be more logical. We owe that much to such an important issue.
As a black man, I have always been intrigued by and sought out conversations about race with my white friends. If for nothing else, just to get their point of view on how they think about certain things in relation to what I think. The majority of the time, I find myself disarming the conversation by prefacing that they are free to speak their minds without fear that I will use their viewpoints to characterize them as apathetic or racist, unless what they had to say was actually apathetic and/or racist. You might think this is necessary. You might think it’s too much of an effort to placate; and both could be true. Ultimately, it’s my own personal way to try to alleviate the guilt and facilitate an active conversation that embraces all LOGICAL viewpoints, even if I disagree with them.
The other prong of the solution to this complex problem is less layered. White/non-black people have to rid themselves of concern with social media trolls and just say what they have to say. There are trolls on both sides of the aisle. The side that fights for equality isn’t worried about character assassination. They shouldn’t be either. Disagreement is fine. It’s the deterring of reasonable thought that keeps this conversation in its infancy stages.
If we remain dogmatic in our preference for how we want race issues to be tackled in this country – who we want to speak, how they should speak, what they’re background is, and so on – actual racism will continue to reign supreme. The past is the past, and when necessary we can evoke those occurrences to make conversations about racial inequality more palatable.
Just be aware that when you do that as a means to cast blame and generalize, and you’re chomping at the bit for an opportunity to find the next racist, all you’re doing is instilling white guilt into another silenced voice and prompting them to run to the nearest diversion to escape.
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