May 26 @ 3:00 am $
May 26 @ 3:00 am $
In an August pre-season NFL game, San Francisco 49ers star Quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to sit on the bench during the national anthem, setting off a firestorm so polarizing, it quickly transcended the sports world and has become a heated debate on the national stage.
Many argue that Kaepernick’s actions were inappropriate, even “un-American”. Parallels were immediately drawn with controversial African American athletes: Muhammad Ali’s bold refusal to enlist in the military during the Vietnam war in 1967, Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith & John Carlos raising their black-gloved fists on the medal stand during the 1968 games, and NBA basketball player Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf also refusing to honor the anthem before basketball games in the 1990’s.
American children look up to college and professional athletes. Whether they accept it or not, our children see and emulate their behavior. In the wake of Kaepernick’s actions, six 5th graders took a knee during the anthem at a school assembly. For African-American children in particular, what messages are they receiving from Kaepernick’s protest? How can the parents of African-American children use this as an opportunity to engage, educate, and increase youth awareness?
In the midst of the national outrage, an important conversation for everyone to have is the actual origin of our national anthem. In 1815 Francis Scott Key penned The Star Spangled Banner in protest of the Colonial Marines, a battalion of runaway slaves who joined the British Royal Army in exchange for their freedom. An entire stanza of the anthem memorializing Key’s frustration with these disobedient slaves is traditionally excluded from the modern-day version of the song. The lesson here is that the African-American experience is rooted in a history of slavery and oppression, with countless norms, traditions, and philosophies that have a lasting residual impact on our communities today. To overcome these inequities, we have to be acutely aware of their existence and origin.
Another important message is the disparate treatment often experienced by African-Americans in school and the workplace. Many high-profile African-Americans athletes who have chosen to make political statements aligned with their beliefs have paid a steep price. Muhamad Ali was stripped of his boxing title, suspended, and jailed. Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was suspended by NBA Commissioner David Stern and eventually forced out of the league. Tommie Smith & John Carlos were suspended from the Olympic team and received death threats. By contrast, others have successfully leveraged sports platforms to make a point with no repercussion or controversy: 1n 2010, white Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver had his NBA team don “Los Suns” jerseys in protest of law SB-1070, seen by some as anti-immigrant. Today, alternative Spanish-language team jerseys are a revenue-generating NBA staple sported and supported by several teams; in 1908, Ireland boycotted the Olympic games in protest of Britain’s refusal to grant their independence; in 1980, President Jimmy Carter mandated a U.S. boycott of the Olympics to protest the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. Our children need to understand that the motives and morality African-Americans frequently come under attack when we chose to speak up and assert ourselves; we need to be strong and resilient when we chose to do so.
While addressing the media about his actions, Kaepernick said:
This is probably the most important thing that he has said about this issue. Creating an environment in our country where we can all engage in frank dialogue, with open minds, where we truly seek first to understand is a critical first step in the long journey toward changing attitudes, appreciating differences, and strengthening our country. The conversations we have with our children is where it all begins.
While discussing the incident of Kaepernick refusing to stand during the National Anthem with my own children, my wife and I asked them what they thought about what Kaepernick had done. They mentioned that they were confused by his actions and all of the publicity surrounding it. We explained to them that Kaepernick was voicing his protest over the way people of color have been treated in this country, especially when it comes to the interactions between the police and the African-American community. We also talked about the history of the National Anthem.
Understanding Kaepernick’s actions became clearer to them when discussed within the context of protest because they are familiar with this term as it relates to other members of the African-American community who have used their voice and actions to speak out against injustices in the past. We emphasized that everyone has the right to protest and they have the right to decide for themselves if, when and how they would like to speak out against injustice.
While my children may be too young (10 and 8 years old) to understand all of the complex and challenging issues still facing the African-American community and American society as a whole, the stand that Kaepernick took provided an opportunity to continue our conversations in this area. We were able to use this “teachable moment” to remind them again of the importance of paying attention to social issues and the historical events that continue to influence our daily lives as African-American people.