The 5 Words Americans Need to Face
A Reflection on the response to Colin Kaepernick
When I first heard that Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem during a football game, my reaction was two fold.
The first was to ask “who?” Not being American myself, when I hear the word football I tend to think more of what people in the U.S. refer to as soccer than American football, and as such I’ve never really paid attention to the NFL. Colin Kaepernick was not a name I was familiar with.
My second thought is not understanding why this is controversial news by any measure. Especially after reading what Kaepernick had to say about why he refused to stand.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” — Colin Kaepernick
This symbolic act of protest against the United States by Black athletes for that exact reason is hardly new. One only needs to look back at one of the most well known photos of all of the Olympic’s history to realize this: Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black power salute at the 1968 olympics
The connection is more prominent once you realize that both Tommie Smith and John Carlos played American football, Smith in the AFL with the Cincinnati Bengals and Carlos being drafted but unable to play due to an injury.
But while its interesting to talk about the history of Black protests against the U.S. and the prevalent racism which is state-supported, especially with relation to the stage offered by sports, I want to shift my focus away from the act itself and focus more on the backlash against Kaepernick. More specifically the mindset the people speaking out against Kaepernick seem to hold.
The 5 Words
Basically, the 5 words I want to tell you are “the U.S. is not perfect.”
Most of the time I tell Americans who aren’t actively engaged in human right struggles (or at least engaged in theory) this there’s a certain reaction I receive where the American I’m talking to looks at me like I’ve said Elvis is still alive and during the 1990s he was active under the name Tupac Shakur. Then they start either laughing or just angrily stating that they never implied that and of course the U.S. has problems. Look at the economy! Look at the partisan politics! Look at this, look at that. Yet, while listing off all of these issues that the U.S. has they never get to the root of what I mean when I say the U.S. is not perfect.
And that root is that the framework in which Americans view and conceptualize the U.S. is a constant revisioning and reworking of the United States of America.
Obligatory Eagle and Flag photo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
OK, so what the fuck do I mean by “a constant revisioning and reworking of the United States of America”?
I mean that the discourse surrounding the US being used by Americans is one which utilizes several processes which allow for a revisioning and reworking of how the US is conceptualized so that it is always seen as an ideal state plagued by temporary, surface-level problems.
The economy, the partisan politics, Donald Trump, etc all of the issues which Americans point to when I say that the average Americans view the US as perfect are, at their core, temporary and surface level. What all these issues have in common is that while they are issues, they are all issues with solutions (even if we haven’t found them yet), thus rendering them temporary, and they are surface level issues. While they are legitimate issues, these issues don’t have anything to do with the core values of the United States (“freedom, liberty, justice, yadda yadda yadda”) or the historical legacy of the United States (the underdog which became a superpower which is an arbiter of truth, freedom, liberty, justice, [capitalistic] democracy, etc) which is why I call them surface level.
And we see this through how various movements get discredited. The class struggle is discredited with neoliberal narratives of pulling oneself up by their bootstraps. The anti-racist movements like #BlackLivesMatter are discredited with the creation of counter-movements like #AllLivesMatter or discussion of how racism are over or how racism is an individual prejudice instead of system of oppression which permeates all aspects of society. We see this in how discussions of sex and gender get discredited by psuedo-scientific essentialist appeals to biology.
The fact that opposition to class, sex, gender, race, and other systems of oppression get discredited and reduced lies in the fact that they are not surface level. They point to the hypocrisy in the core values of the United States as a society which touts freedom and liberty and fairness and yet is constructed upon oppressive structures where large groups of people are not free, are not safe, are not recognized as equal.
This is why US history textbooks gloss over the atrocities of slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. This is why the US history textbooks fail to truly discuss just how deep the US was and is involved with in systems of colonialism and imperialism. This is why there’s such a large focus on the war on terror without an explanation of how the US is involved in creating the situations which bred terrorists.
Like I’m Korean. I can speak of how the US, by signing the Taft-Katsura agreement basically informed Japan that they were free to colonize Korea. Or how the Korean war was basically a proxy war fought between the USSR and the United States using Korean lives. Or how the US continues to maintain a military presence in Korea and yet when soldiers commit crimes refuses to have them trialed.
And that’s just from a Korean perspective.
To discuss these issues is seen as an attack on the historical legacy of the United States. It shakes the very foundation of what it means to be an American. It reconstructs the narrative so that the United States is not a country founded on noble values which made a few missteps along the way but rather the United States is a country which, from it’s very founding, is rooted in oppression. Land accumulation which is the very basis of the US currently? Genocide of the Native Americans. Capital accumulation which formed the basis of US Capitalism? Slavery.
You don’t learn about these as integral aspects of the history of the United States because the historical legacy of the United States must be protected. They must be kept intact in that moralist claims of invading the middle east to help the women and queers there, or waging a war on drugs to keep our citizens healthy (despite the fact that it’s basically an excuse to incarcerate people of color, especially focusing on Black and Latinx people), or imposing the US’s will on other countries as part of a “humanitarian intervention” to name a few. The US’s historical legacy forms a part of the reasoning of not only US exceptionalism, but also the moral and ethical rationality behind so many of it’s destructive and oppressive policies.
So while, as an American, you may have read “The US is not perfect” and thought but no there’s this issue and there’s that issue, deep down you know that you think these issues are temporary and when cleared up the US will emerge as the beaming figure of glory standing for truth, justice, liberty, freedom, and some other feel good bullshit concepts which are so abstract at this point they really hold no meaning.
It won’t. The US is flawed from its very core down to its very roots. From its foundation to its history. And the national anthem is a symbol of all of the historical and systematic oppression embodied by the U.S.
So repeat after me, the US is not perfect. Maybe after saying that you’ll understand and accept the fucking responsibility that comes with the statement, “I’m an American.”