Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Anthems and Antagonism

I write quite a bit about being a Christian in the midst of American patriotism and the effects of various identities and allegiances on life and faith. I'm not sure I need to go into that much here today - if you want you can read a relatively recent post that touches on the subject.

I do want to offer some personal reflections on the topic of the national anthem as its been in the news a bit this week. San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick was photographed sitting down for the national anthem at a recent preseason game. When asked, he said he was doing so as a protest to racial inequalities that exist in the US, specifically to highlight accountability that's not taking place.

Here's a pretty basic summary

There have been heaps of comments from people all over the political and cultural map making comments about what Kaepernick should do - some very supportive, some in opposition - still others who seem to just enjoy hearing themselves speak. For me, I think those who comment on the situation as a whole and not on one person or one action have the most reasoned and agreeable positions. Here are two I resonate with: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Wright, a retired member of the US Navy. Both men eschew comment on Kaepernick or his protest and instead focus on the broader subject of protest and patriotism in the US. This seems much more healthy.

As someone who does not feel comfortable pledging allegiance to a nation for a host of (oft discussed) religious reasons, what struck me from this episode was how often people wanted to give Kaepernick advice on decorum. Probably more often than not in those opinion pieces, the author ends up saying, "I can respect his anger and his desire to protest, but this isn't the way to do it; he should still honor the flag."

It's odd that these statements both me, because it's essentially what I've decided to do. When I'm at an occasion where the pledge of allegiance is recited or the national anthem played, I generally stand, with my hands behind my back and my head bowed. I don't feel comfortable participating in such displays of nationalism, but I understand the moment is important for those around me, even if I wish it were less so. I don't want to be a distraction or detraction from what is an important ritual for others.

I guess that's the part that makes me leery of this "advice" Kaepernick is getting. It's essentially sympathetic people expressing their desire not to make waves during patriotic events. I get the sentiment and they're certainly entitled to an opinion, but isn't that the point of protest? To make a scene, to unnerve people you feel to be too comfortable? A protest is, by definition, a disruption.

As far as protests go, this was a pretty quiet one. Kaepernick isn't a starting QB. He's no longer the star of the team. What's more he never sought out a platform to make a public statement. He's embraced the opportunity, sure, but only because he was asked. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the sprinters of the famous black glove protest at the 1968 Olympics are, now, generally lauded as heroes (even if they were kicked out of the Olympics at the time) for a much more obvious and disruptive protest. I can't imagine it's Kaepernick's failure to stand up that's really a problem for most people.

Symbols are tricky. The flag and the anthem and so many other "patriotic" things mean something to people - they represent something more than themselves (which is the definition of symbol). When things mean a lot to us, it's real difficult for us to imagine they mean something else to someone else - or worse: nothing at all.

This is why I try so hard to safeguard my identity. It's easy for us to get our own selves, our own sense of worth and rightness tied up in the symbols we value. If we see ourselves as people of sacrifice and loyalty and hard work, it's easy for us to attach those things (and thus ourselves) to a flag or a nation or a cause or religion.

It also works the other way. I try hard not to let my image of someone else get too caught up in identities. Whether it's Kaepernick and his difficulties with the US and its symbols - or those people who speak most harshly against him while wrapped in the (sometimes proverbial) flag. Patriotism and Protest are both symbols people cling to; they are as much identities and symbols as those things they set up in opposition to themselves. I think it's good practice not to buy into that mode of thinking, but to see and treat people as unique individuals, separate from any group or notion they may associate with.

That leaves Colin Kaepernick as a still relatively young guy who's struggling with some difficult issues. He's a biracial man, raised by adoptive white parents seeking to be a leader in a culture and world that (largely) sees him as a man of color. He's attempting to stand for and demand justice in the best way he knows how - with some varying degree of success and failure.

Let's all try to hold the reins a bit, here; avoid putting him into some group or category it's easy for us to reject or support; and have some real conversations about the problems that exist in our country and the vastly different ways people seek to right them. I feel like that provides respect for everyone and a real, hopeful path forward.


Jessica Wolst said...

Wonder how they would've reacted if he'd been a (visually) white man...

Ryan said...

See, that's a whole other issue. He's been criticized by one former player as "not black," and thus with no standing to be upset about the issue. That is, admittedly, an outlying opinion, but it also displays the same problem from an entirely different perspective - one I didn't even address here.