The Whitesplaining Of American Patriotism In A Time Of Protest

Until last week, I made a point to stay out of the discussion about Colin Kaepernick and his right to kneel during the national anthem. I understood his choice, and there were a lot of smart and interesting discussions and dissections about the form of protest happening online, as well as on television.

But then I heard Dabo Swinney, coach of the Clemson Tigers football team in South Carolina, on my local news station. In the clip, he said that he would not “discipline” his players if they decided to kneel in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, before launching into a 10-minute sermon misinterpreting the words of frequently arrested protester Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and uttering the words “if you think everything in this world is so bad, and it’s falling apart . . . you know, some of these people need to move to another country.”

As I listened to his words, and the applause they incited, I dropped my glass of sweet tea. He was, in many ways, talking about people like me.

Swinney’s stance is more than misguided; it’s toxic to the great, equality-promoting America that he seems to believe we already live in. He has since apologized to his team for the distraction he caused with his original comments, but not for the comments themselves. Besides, he has already provided ammunition to those who seek to delegitimize the current movement for social justice because they benefit from racial inequality. People on social media, like nate3914, are echoing the sentiment that protesters should leave — in this case, during a video on Instagram, while setting Kaepernick’s jersey ablaze.

In simplifying and degrading the intention behind the words that MLK spoke, Swinney stepped on the legacies of every African American athlete who has used their body as a form of protest in an effort to make things better for those who did not have a platform to protest inequality the way they did.

Swinney is not alone in perpetuating such dangerous rhetoric. In a recent New York Times column, “The Uses of Patriotism,” David Brooks called the high school football players that kneel “counterproductive” and lamented the decline of American Patriotism, among other things.

People like Brooks and Swinney may be waving a white flag of unity, but what they’re actually doing is perpetuating a racial divide by not attempting to understand what these players — at the professional, collegiate, and high school level — are non-violently protesting. The moves of Brooks and Swinney seek to delegitimize the current civil rights movement in the eyes of white viewers and readers who look to them for commentary.

It’s insidious and dangerous — and rooted in willful ignorance about what it means to be an American today.

***

According to a poll from the FS1 opinion and debate show Undisputed, 47% of Americans oppose Kaepernick’s protest. The criticism is largely rooted in the idea that kneeling during the “Star Spangled Banner” is unpatriotic, even as veterans and active military stand behind Kaepernick’s protest and the NFL states that it’s his right to do so.

But the notion of patriotism propagated by Brooks, Swinney, and so much of the American public is problematic for one simple reason: Not everybody lives in the same America.

Brooks speaks specifically of “America’s traditional universal nationalism” — but this has never existed for my family. When my grandfather came back from WWII, he was still black, and still a second-class citizen who could not benefit from the GI Bill.

The utopia that both Swinney and Brooks live in and describe is based on a historical precedent that was never fair to people of color. And in fact, it’s this unwillingness to let go of a false history that has left us so divided.

For 300 years, there was one mainstream and manufactured version of the story, which white heteronormative men kept perpetuating as the truth. It was a story that demanded humility and gratitude from minorities who were supposed to be grateful for being allowed to exist at all. Black people were animals with smaller brains, deserving of their lesser place on the food chain. America built its economy and industry off that justification, mostly in the form of cotton.

Today, we continue to live in a deeply inequitable America — something Swinney would know if he tended to his own backyard. I live less than an hour away from Clemson, and it seems like at least once a month, there’s another racist incident on campus, be it a blackface party, the hanging of bananas on a banner commemorating African American history, or gang-themed Cripmas parties.

Swinney’s comments were condemned by NFL players who are alumni of his own sports program; people who walked through those halls and understand how people of color, specifically Black students, are treated much differently on campus. Clemson’s commitment to diversity is deplorable — and proven so: In the fall of 2015, of 18,016 undergraduates, 14,979 identified as white; 1,191 identified as African American.

The very ground Swinney stood upon while making those inflammatory comments is a holdover from slavery. Part of Clemson’s campus is built on a former plantation, and the school’s founder, Thomas Green Clemson, owned slaves, a fact the school withholds from the founder’s biography, even though they were essential to his agricultural work.

One of the university’s prominent buildings is named after Benjamin Ryan Tillman, one of the university’s original trustees and a U.S. Senator who once claimed he was involved in four “race riots,” publicly stated he would work to protect white supremacy, and preached the sanctity of lynching law.

The last lynching in South Carolina happened in Pickens, where Clemson University sits. We are only 50 years removed from that act, the lynching of Willie Earle. We are one generation, at best two, away from that version of physical tyranny — yet revisionist history treats this particular brand of terrorism as ancient history, a leftover relic from a more barbaric time.

People like Brooks and Swinney are hiding behind the symbols of patriotism, freedom, and liberty because it is easier than peeking behind the curtain to see how our educational, judicial, and financial systems treat people who don’t look like them, don’t dress like them, and don’t have the money that they do.

Brooks specifically speaks of “aspirations passed down generation after generation and sung in unison week by week.” But the song we sing in my house, week after week, is “one day we’ll do more than just get by.”

Meanwhile, Dabo Swinney makes an average of $5 million a year (give or take about $100,000) on the power of the unpaid labor of college athletes, who, when prodded by reporters, are groomed to say they’re just grateful for the opportunity; for the chance to play and take their skills to the big leagues in an effort to capitalize on a decade’s worth of pipe dreams and family prayers to rectify generations of economic inequality.

Brooks and Swinney seem to think “unpatriotic” actions are unfounded, when in fact they’re the result of exposure to seemingly unending abuse. As people of color, we have access to the internet, to archives, to our history, and to one another.

We know what’s going on in America. And it’s not an America we’re willing to blindly accept.

***

I first heard the nationalistic “love it or leave it” rationale espoused by people like Brooks and Swinney in tenth grade, during my Honors Composition and Research class in high school. The topic of the week was persuasive arguments, and the subject of the day was whether or not it was constitutional for teachers to post the Ten Commandments in public schools.

It was 2002, before the golden age of internet outrage and when this was timely, as a bill focused on this topic was wending its way through the South Carolina Senate. The teacher made the closing argument that the majority religion was Christianity, and Christian lawmakers made the rules.

It’s been 15 years, but one sentence is still lodged in my mind: “If you don’t like it, you can go back where you came from.”

It was a comment that made me feel disenfranchised in my own homeland. I tried, as a fumbling 15-year-old, to explain to my teacher that my family, as well as most African-Americans, had nowhere to go back to. Ripped from somewhere on the African continent during the trans-Atlantic slave trade and stripped of their history and language, my ancestors only knew South Carolina. And so they, like so many black families, embraced America as home, and tried to better every generation while here. And yet, all this time later, it feels like we’re living on someone else’s grace, on America’s faux benevolence.

Well, I’m done borrowing time. And so are many of the athletes who have decided to kneel.

When Kaepernick takes his knee, and when we take to the streets in nonviolent protest, it reveals how overhyped the concept of the American Dream is for the majority of minorities and those suffering from the yoke of injustice.

Kneeling during the anthem got America’s attention in a way that live footage of murders, roundtables, press conferences, and online activism haven’t. It made the average American, who has the power to mute their television or ads on video streaming outlets, pay attention to an issue that directly affects the people around them.

So my message to heteronormative white men of a certain age is this: Stop forming opinions on something you know nothing about and refuse to study. Stop condemning our protests as inconvenient, unpatriotic, and divisive. Stop cloaking your words in the politics of respectability and religious superiority — and calling them cries of unity.

The solidarity and peace that you desire so much that you’re willing to talk nationally about it is only on lease for people of color — constantly up for renewal, as the price and body count grow higher and we swallow our unfettered rage in order to make you comfortable in your white fragility, so that you can feel smug about progress and the first African-American president.

The division isn’t getting worse because we’re finally acknowledging it. Sports helped change the dynamics of this conversation, and now we have to wrestle with the elusive questions that people of color have been asking for years: What does true equality and justice look like — without conditions, without additional ancillary clauses?

We fight and kneel and protest because we want to live in an America that is great; an America that is equitable.

We fight because we are tired of sucking it up, and cowering under the idea that the fear and subsequent regulations of our bodies is “just the way things are.”

Because Marc Jacobs can commercialize dreadlocks, but it’s been ruled constitutional for employers to deny Black women with them employment.

Because my neighbors are so xenophobic they couldn’t stand the thought of taking in refugees, as if the majority of them hadn’t come to America as immigrants, at some point and time.

Because I started this essay and then there was the murder of Tyre King, then the murder of Terence Crutcher, and then that of Keith Lamont Scott.

Because 15 black people have died at the hands of the police since Kaepernick began his nonviolent protest. Here are their names, and in some cases their faces, courtesy of The Guardian.

Where are your opinions now, “well meaning,” patronizing, and condescending white people?

When we’re defiant, we die. If we’re compliant, we die. When we dare to exist, we die. The evidence is damning.

It was easier for Brooks and Swinney to question a protester’s loyalty to the soil that we were born on, because we see a different version of America, than it was to accept that what we see on the evening news every night is not an outlier.

I wonder if they have ever asked themselves what it means to live in a constant state of terror, to watch videos of murder (if society will allow me to call it that, when there are no indictments) and torture on loop every night on the news.

I wish they could understand the trauma attached to the black body, the psychological stains, the imprints of these incidents we can never leave behind as the video becomes background noise and a reporter’s words float over the top of black pain.

Leaving America, as Swinney suggested, means giving up, and finally admitting that there is nothing left worth saving. But my love for this place is as thick as the red clay my house sits upon.

I cut my entrepreneurial teeth here. I have loved and lost on this land. I have had my spirit broken in this place. Leaving would make me a person without an anchor, without history. It’s part of my programming; I carry a bit of the red clay I was raised up in everywhere I go.

I love my country and community enough to criticize it, to hold it to a higher standard than the rubric that was given to me, marked with the words “just survive.”

Langston Hughes said it best: “I, too, am America.”

I am the gritty bits, the heartbreaking parts, the vessel that captures the creativity and beauty of what it means to endure. Every American is.

Every.

***

Lead image: flickr/D. Williams

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