Once, while in the New York City subway, I came upon a black man kneeling on the floor by the card kiosk. He was counting change. As I struggled to get my own subway card from the self-serve kiosk—first time, no idea what I was doing—the man looked up and asked if I had 50 cents. My knee-jerk reaction was caution. Because he was black? Because he was a man? Because he was both?
I’m not sure, but I checked my caution and looked into his face, into his eyes. He was frustrated. Short 50 cents, so annoying, isn’t it, to be short 50 fucking cents?
But the other thing I saw in his eyes was, Please see me.
I dug 50 cents from the corners of my wallet. The man helped me get my subway card, putting as much distance as possible between our two bodies as he tapped the kiosk’s touch screen to lead me through the process.
I’ll never forget the silent plea in his eyes: Please see me.
Nike’s most recent ad campaign starring Colin Kaepernick, and the debate it reignited about whether or not it’s okay to kneel during the National Anthem, reminded me of my interaction with the black man who needed 50 cents. Comments like:
“My only objection is timing.”
“It’s a sporting event—entertainment—not the time or place for political statements.”
“If you must protest, do it on your own time.”
“Kneeling during the National Anthem is offensive to veterans who fought for your right to do so.”
That last statement, so often uttered by people who aren’t veterans themselves, is what is truly offensive to veterans. It invalidates their sacrifices. I have lost myself in long Twitter threads full of veterans insisting that peaceful protest is one of the rights they hold most dear. Whether they personally agree with the time or place or reason for a protest, they reiterate again and again that it is anyone’s right to do so. They are baffled that anyone who claims to be a patriot would try to dilute this freedom, and frustrated that so many have taken it upon themselves to speak for them.
What people don’t talk about enough [read: white people] is the reasons folks kneel in the first place. The reason the Black Lives Matter movement came into being. For too many [white people], the conversation always ends up being about convenience, timing, appropriateness.
Isn’t that convenient, fellow white people? Isn’t it lovely to be able to choose when and where you’re uncomfortable? Isn’t it grand to be able to choose to avoid discomfort altogether?
Not long after the shooting death by a police officer of Philando Castile, I was at a dinner with extended family. I made a comment that maybe this time people would finally start to listen to the stories black folks have been telling all along – stories that indicate that racial bias and outright racism in America’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems disproportionately affect people of color, especially black folks.
My cousin piped in, “Yeah, well, I think a lot of those stories are exaggerated.”
I was stunned into silence. Those stories are exaggerated? My ears heated until they hurt—I was too furious to form a coherent rebuttal. I’m still ashamed I didn’t have a bullet-point list of why he was wrong. I’m angry at myself for not flipping the fucking table. I know that not speaking up makes me part of the problem.
As far as I’m aware, my cousin has no black friends. Maybe if I didn’t have black friends, I would be able to delude myself into thinking “those stories” were exaggerated? I don’t know. But, I do have black friends, and they have told me we have a problem.
Holy shit, I almost just listed some of my friends’ good qualities so you would be more likely to believe them/me.
What does it say that I feel the need to justify my friends’ humanity to you? What does it say that I need to tell you my friends are smart, educated, upstanding citizens? It says that on a deep, when-I-was-a-kid-grandma-told-me-black-people-are-dirty level that I carry racism within me, and expect that you carry it too. It says that I expect you to require assurance that these black people, my friends, are trustworthy. (As opposed to what?)
This is the insidious nature of racism. Even when we think we’re being positive, we’re still drawing words and thoughts from a well fed by a spring coursing through centuries of racist sediment. We all carry racial bias within us – if not overt racism – in some form or another.
So does law enforcement. Of course, racial bias affects them just like everyone else. In-group out-group thinking is part of human nature, a defensive adaptation evolved to ensure the continuance of our genetic line. Layer that under the more (relatively) recent social constructs like slavery, segregation, oppression, and racially biased systems and policies born out of those atrocities, and oh yes we do indeed have a fucking problem.
You know what? I don’t actually need black friends to convince me of this. No one does. It should be pretty obvious to anyone willing to pull their head out of their privileged ass long enough to do a little googling that systemic racism exists.
So the question is not whether it is appropriate to kneel during the National Anthem at sporting events or whether doing so is disrespectful to veterans.
The question is whether we choose to acknowledge the root cause of the protest, which basically boils down to:
Black mothers are afraid to let their children walk down the fucking street because too many non-black people’s knee-jerk reaction is to be afraid of a black kid.
The question is whether we are willing to admit to and confront our own racial bias.
The question is whether we’re willing to acknowledge that although we may never have personally witnessed law enforcement discriminating against a person of color, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen on the regular.
The question is whether we’re willing to admit that the folks who have been screaming their throats raw, literally begging for their lives, are not “exaggerating.”
The question is whether we’re willing to listen to them and admit we have a problem.
The question is whether we’re willing to demand something be done to fix the problem.
Have you ever had that nightmare where something awful is happening and you’re screaming for help, but no one can hear you? Awful, isn’t it? What a relief to wake up from that, right?
So, stop talking about Colin Kaepernick. Stop talking about Nike. Stop talking about the flag. Stop talking about whether kneeling disrespects veterans.
Stop fucking talking.
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