Allow me to clarify; I’m not a racist by the textbook definition. I don’t believe that one race is superior to another. However, it would be a blatant lie for me to claim that race has no effect on how I view others. I’m just like any other human, and I make sense of the world around me by dividing things into groups based on broad categories such as race, religion, gender, and so on. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; it’s just human nature, but, as history often shows us, human nature can lead us down a dark path.
I’ve returned to covering race issues as a result of the controversy surrounding an ever-growing group of NFL players – spearheaded by Colin Kaepernick – who are refusing to stand for the national anthem. Some have voiced their support for these players, and others have condemned them for being disrespectful and “whiny”. The Cloyd Rivers twitter account has plenty of examples if you want to see what I’m talking about. Many people from the latter group have also used pictures of American veterans to pit those who have served our country against these players. Overall, it’s really just a silly argument.
This is America, If you Don’t Like It, Leave
The funniest part of it all is that veterans and these NFL players are really on the same side of this issue. The members of our military serve their country to defend the ideals that we stand for; freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom in general. Freedom. It’s a word that has become synonymous with America in many of our minds. These NFL players are using this freedom to also fight for something they believe in and raise awareness for the racial inequalities in America. Make no mistake, I don’t intend to gloss over the fact that our veterans risk grave injury and even death in order to protect our freedoms (something that NFL players don’t come close to), but it’s ludicrous to use veterans as an argument against someone using the freedoms that our veterans have fought to protect.
Refusing to stand for the national anthem certainly isn’t a very “American” action in the patriotic sense, but it’s not un-American either. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says that all American citizens have to stand for the national anthem, and many of us don’t. I’m sure that most of the armchair activists (including myself) who are speaking on this issue don’t bother to rise from their chairs as they watch the game on Sunday, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make us any less American, but to all those who are criticizing Kaepernick and others for refusing to stand during the anthem, I have to ask, what is so “American” about your outrage and criticisms? Does your intense pride in your country make your statements and actions inherently more valid than Kaepernick’s? The bottom line of this issue is that everyone in this situation has a right to say what they please, because this is America, and that is how we do things. No one side of this argument is more right or wrong than another; we are all just expressing our beliefs.
The Real Issues
So, if no one in this is right or wrong, why is the national anthem debate even a controversy? Because celebrities are involved and people are outraged about something, and that is what we focus on. It happens all of the time in the media. We discuss Donald Trump’s latest “offensive comments” without ever lingering on one story long enough to address the fact that he is legitimizing discrimination and hatred as an integral part of American culture. We show outrage at Brock Turner’s 3 month jail sentence for rape without taking a hard look at the ways in which Tuner’s case demonstrates the problems of white privilege and sexism in America. We are up in arms about Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem, but we have barely covered the issue that led to his protest: racial inequalities in America. We need to turn our heads toward the real issues, so now that I’ve thrown in my two cents on the NFL controversy, I intend to do just that.
Before I went off on a tangent about the NFL, I made what might appear to be a strange claim: I’m racist. Well, I am. I’m not trying to be; I don’t enjoy being racist or embrace it with the zeal of a white supremacist, but I know that race is one of the issues that affects the way I interact with others. No one is truly colorblind when it comes to race, just as no one is gender-blind or religion-blind or anything else blind, so we need to stop pretending that we are just so we can avoid dealing with our problems. Arguing that “race isn’t an issue in today’s America” is a bit like arguing that the sky is really lime green with purple lines running across it; it’s only believable if you don’t look at the thing you’re discussing. Open your eyes and you would find that the sky is indeed blue and that racial inequality is happening all around us. Welcome to the real world.
Why It Happens
As I mentioned previously, dividing things into categories is part of human nature, and for good reason. We tend to aim for the “sweet spot” of specificity; for example, I tell someone that I’m going to “put my backpack in my car” instead of my “2002 Nissan Frontier with a six-cylinder engine and crew cab and a dent in the back left corner” or my “thing“. The first option is far too specific, while the second is too vague to illustrate my point. It’s the same way with people. You wouldn’t think of your black friend as just a “person” because that could be anyone, but you also wouldn’t refer to them as “Joe who is of Afro-Caribbean descent on his father’s side and Nigerian descent on his mother’s side” because that’s a lot to remember and no one wants to say all that. Race is one of those things that has enough categories to help us separate people in our heads, but not so many options that we get confused.
We also focus on things like race and gender in particular because they are among the first things we notice about a person. Take my friend Teddy for example; I knew that he was a black male before I knew that his name was Teddy because I didn’t even have to interact with him to see his race and gender.
We divide the world into groups because it gives us a sense of control and let’s us believe that we can predict an unpredictable world. We use attribute such as race, gender, and appearance to make quick judgments about a person before we interact with them so that we feel prepared if we do have to interact with them. It’s human nature, and that’s not something that’s going to change anytime soon.
So What Can We Do?
We’re never going to stop judging people on a person to person basis; that’s just part of who we are as humans. Racism becomes an issue when stereotypes about a certain race color your perceptions of everyone with a certain skin-tone, regardless of their other attributes. In my freshman year, there were several times when some of the older black kids decided to mess with me because I was a “short, skinny white boy”; they would lunge at me to make me flinch, or the girls would try to dance on me to make me uncomfortable. I ended up being scared to walk by myself around black kids that I didn’t know because I was scared that they were going to decide to screw with me somehow. It wasn’t wrong of me to be cautious or to try to avoid ending up in those same situations, but it was wrong of me to attribute those other students actions to their race. They didn’t mess with me because they were black, they messed with me because they were immature. You can’t see if someone is immature just by looking at them though, so I pinned their actions on the easiest thing that I could see, which turned out to be their race.
That is what makes racism such a problem in America; we have one negative experience with someone, and we blame that negative experience on that person’s race because it makes life easier for the rest of us. Take 9/11 for example. The attack was perpetrated by a group of extreme Jihadist terrorists, but it can be difficult to identify someone as a Jihadist terrorist just from looking at them. We still wanted to stop terrorism, so we boiled it down to the fact that those terrorists were Muslim and Arab, and used an entire religion/ethnicity as a scapegoat. There’s nothing wrong with fighting terrorism, but there are so many things that are wrong with making millions of innocent Muslims suffer as a result of stereotypes which amount to nothing more than laziness on our part.
Blacks face the same issue. They did something that upset whites (how dare they escape from slavery!), so they were labeled as lazy, evil, good-for-nothing – basically every negative attribute in the book – and it stuck. Now, more than 100 years later, we still struggle to peel away the labels that were placed on an entire race so long ago. Things are not nearly as bad as they once were, but they are nowhere near perfect.
Peeling off the labels is hard. It requires many of us to challenge the beliefs and perceptions that have been impressed upon us since birth, and that is no easy task. But we have to do it. We have to prove that humanity is above the hatred that threatens to put us at each other’s throats. Blacks, whites, and members of every other race have to work together to peel away those labels and to give everyone an equal shot at success in a country that was intended to be a land of opportunity and prosperity. That is what Kaepernick is saying when he kneels during the national anthem, and that is what we should focus on.
Instead of turning Kaepernick into a villain, his ultra-patriotic opposition should take note of the fact that only an incredibly serious issue could make him feel a lack of pride in a country that they perceive to be so great. One of the tweets from the previously mentioned Cloyd Rivers twitter account actually summarizes the issue quite well, saying “I don’t want a country where everyone is forced to stand for the anthem. I want a country where everyone wants to stand for the anthem.” That’s what Kaepernick wants too, so instead of fighting each other over an act of protest, they should be working together to fix the issue of racial inequality so that Kaepernick – and all blacks who are affected every day by racism and prejudice – can stand for the national anthem with pride once more.
Tackling racial inequality doesn’t mean giving one race special treatment over another, it means putting all races on an equal playing field so that each individual can be judged by their character rather than the color of their skin. It may take some special treatment to get us to that even playing field, but equality is the end goal. Let’s not lose sight of that by focusing on trivial issues like standing or sitting during the national anthem.