This Is Why They Kneel
The backstory behind Colin Kaepernick’s iconic #TakeAKnee movement, and where us white folks go from here
In 2016 when Colin Kaepernick remained seated on the bench during the national anthem, not too many people noticed. But a few games later, they did. In fact, it seemed the whole world took notice. After the 49ers’ preseason loss to Green Bay on August 26th, NFL Media asked Kaepernick why he chose to sit rather than stand for the ceremonial pre-game anthem. Kaepernick stated:
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” — NFL.com
The NFL released a statement online that, by taking a stand for civil rights, Kaepernick, 28, joins other athletes, like the NBA’s Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony and several WNBA players in using their platform and status to raise awareness to issues affecting minorities in the U.S. They confirmed Kaepernick’s awareness of the potential harm his actions could bring, and acknowledged the incredible backlash that was likely coming, as seen before “by athletes refusal to support the American flag as a means to take a stand.”
They were right. Americans were not happy.
White Americans, that is.
A few days later Kaepernick expanded on his initial comments, reiterating that this wasn’t an attack on the military, but rather a voice for the people who didn’t have one. He spoke of his own family and friends who served and fought for freedom, liberty, and justice — for everyone. But he also emphasized the fact that not everyone in America is experiencing freedom, liberty, and justice, including military members who return home and are treated unjustly by the same country they just fought for.
Many Americans heard all this, but weren’t really listening. They simply watched and shook their heads, thinking “everyone’s gotta have a cause these days,” while conveniently forgetting the proverb: those who stand for nothing will fall for anything.
Among the Americans watching in dismay was veteran and former active-duty Green Beret, Nate Boyer. Boyer happened to also be former NFL, an undrafted free agent signed by the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. He felt incensed by Kaepernick’s choice to refuse standing for the national anthem. He felt what he was witnessing was disrespectful, and that Kaepernick didn’t understand what the symbols we stand up for really represent.
But rather than let his anger overwhelm him, Boyer instead felt compelled to write an open letter to Kaepernick. In that letter, he made clear that he wasn’t judging Kaepernick for standing up for what he believed in, since that was his “inalienable right.” He acknowledged that what Kaepernick was doing took a lot of courage, and he also wrote:
“… I’d be lying if I said I knew what it was like to walk around in your shoes. I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin, and for me to say I can relate to what you’ve gone through is as ignorant as someone who’s never been in a combat zone telling me they understand what it’s like to go to war.
Even though my initial reaction to your protest was one of anger, I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it. When I told my mom about this article, she cautioned me that ‘the last thing our country needed right now was more hate.’ As usual, she’s right.”
Boyer also wrote of how it would’ve hurt him deeply if he were on the field and noticed a teammate sitting instead of standing for the national anthem. But he continued writing with an open mind, and ended the letter with a message of hope:
There are already plenty people fighting fire with fire, and it’s just not helping anyone or anything. So I’m just going to keep listening, with an open mind.
I look forward to the day you’re inspired to once again stand during our national anthem. I’ll be standing right there next to you. Keep on trying… De Oppresso Liber.
To Boyer’s surprise, after the open letter was published, Colin Kaepernick personally reached out to him, saying he’d like to get together and talk.
From there, as Boyer explained, they met in the lobby of the team hotel, and sat to discuss the situation at hand as well as their differing opinions and feelings on all of it — the good, bad, and ugly.
In an interview later, when Boyer was asked how the conversation ensued (and how it ended), he said, “I suggested him taking a knee instead of sitting even though I wanted him to stand, and he wanted to sit. And it was, like, this compromise that we sort of came to. And that’s where the kneeling began.”
Why kneeling? Because, as Boyer pointed out, in his experience, kneeling has never been seen as a disrespectful act in our country. He spoke of how people kneel when they get knighted, when they propose marriage, when they pray. And, he said:
“soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful. But, of course, that’s just my opinion.”
In the 49ers’ final preseason game, instead of protesting alone on the bench, Kaepernick joined his teammates on the field — but this time, he kneeled for the national anthem. Boyer stood beside him, hand over heart — unnoticed by the general public.
For many white Americans, seeing Kaepernick kneeling in protest was the last straw.
If they thought Kaepernick was being disrespectful to our military troops before, this was even more offensive. Now he was being blatant about it, bringing “his cause” and “personal politics” into the open for all to see. “Showing off,” some said; “doing it for the cameras.”
For many white Americans at that point? It. was. on.
As NFL seasons continued rolling forward, Americans either happily watched or angrily protested — by not watching or attending the games — solely because of the #TakeAKnee movement. And many more white Americans watched with bated breath, wondering what would happen next: would any players kneel? Would they protest some other way? Would they be forced not to? Would protests take to the streets again, and would it lead to riots? Violence?
Tensions only escalated when Donald Trump, well into his first year of the presidency, spoke at a Huntsville, Alabama rally to garner support for Luther Strange in a primary election. Before a cheering crowd and his usual paid claqueurs, Trump returned to his playbook and used the familiar go-to tactics: fearmongering, ad-libbing, and using racial discord to his favor. Wandering off-script, he pandered directly to that night’s audience:
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.” — Donald Trump
Later, Trump continued his rant on Twitter: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect. …our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Trump’s rhetoric played directly into collective white anger and the mentality that leads people to speak of strangers in presumptively familiar terms, saying things like, “Colin Kaepernick is a spoiled rotten brat! F*ck him!”
After Trump needlessly inserted himself into the conversation (as us white folks tend to do), the story received even more media saturation, and gained national attention — including even those who don’t typically care about sports (i.e., me). Seemingly overnight, Kaepernick was propelled into notoriety — for being a ‘divisive’ and ‘polarizing’ figure: a hero to some, a headache to others.
Just like that, the mere mention of his name brought forth displays of collective white anger and bitter indignation, much like Trump had expressed on several occasions before, when he called people—but specifically black NFL players — who took a knee “sons of bitches;” or when he called for boycotting the NFL, and firing any players who protested during the anthem (even though it was their American right to do so).
#TakeAKnee erupted on Twitter where it continued making ripples for years until #BlackLivesMatter erupted with equal momentum. These hashtags were not only a show of support for Kaepernick (and other athletes) who kneeled in solidarity for #BlackLivesMatter, but also, a public condemnation of Trump’s notoriously racist rhetoric. And, they were a public condemnation of bombastic trumpism in general (more commonly known as bigotry-masked-as-patriotism) which “Don the con” himself helped bring to light, for better or worse.
People (especially white people) tend get very worked up over these symbolic patriotic items — flags, the national anthem — forgetting that they are symbols, not idols. It’s one thing to respect the symbolism of what these things stand for, but it’s entirely another to misunderstand the symbolism itself, treating patriotism more like jingoism.
The national anthem is not sacred; it’s a political and national song. (To all those who say they don’t like Kaepernick’s movement because they “don’t want politics infiltrating” their sports? Hate to break it to you, but with this anthem, politics already has a firm place established in America’s professional sports world).
After all, “bombs bursting in air” is definitely not an image that brings on the warm fuzzies, and that song on the whole is actually “one of the most racist, pro-slavery, anti-black songs in the American lexicon,” according to many historians. Read Dr. Jason Johnson’s article, Star-Spangled Bigotry: The Hidden Racist History of the National Anthem, here in The Root, for a great explanation of why.
This 2016 meeting between Kaepernick and Boyer — plus the intentional act of listening and hearing — is ultimately why Kaepernick decided to kneel rather than sit during the national anthem. Once he had the nation’s attention, he knew he had to act quickly and smartly in order to shed light on a huge social injustice still plaguing our country.
People like to argue they don’t pay to hear an athlete’s politics or “cause,” but actually, they already do. All the time, typically without even realizing. Advocacy and activism — yes, even on the job, since it’s a lifelong commitment — is something that all socially responsible celebrities do. They use their platform to be a sort of megaphone for those who aren’t as fortunate.
They speak truth to power, and they speak on behalf of minorities, the marginalized, and the powerless. Meaning, those who have to fight for the same basic human rights that I, a cisgender, heterosexual, white woman, enjoy freely. They speak for those who have to fight for the same human dignities that majorities and others with more social privileges are automatically given.
Kaepernick was speaking for black Americans, who make up roughly 14% of the U.S. population, but who are disproportionately killed — compared to white people — at the hands of police. The same black people who are also disproportionately affected by racist microaggressions from the Nancy Goodmans of the world, and racist macroaggressions from the Amy Coopers of the world — each of which eventually feed into the cycle of violence against black lives. Again, and again, and again.
But Kaepernick also decided to kneel because Boyer (who always stands for the national anthem) helped him to see how kneeling was a more respectful, more powerful way to demonstrate his right to protest a flag (and a society) that he felt wasn’t upholding the same values for black lives that it upholds for white ones.
However, in 2016, most sports fans in the general public — whether watching NFL games from the stadium or their own homes — never knew about this behind-the-scenes compromise, a compromise between two men with the same morals and guiding principles, but two very different realities.
In 2019 I wrote on the larger theme of white privilege, which underlies all racial issues like #TakeAKnee, and can even shed some light on things like the hypocrisies of trumpism. I still wonder (especially today in light of recent horrific events, with more white Americans becoming familiar with the role systemic racism plays in our country), how many of them are able to see the power of this dialogue between Kaepernick and Boyer.
I wonder if people can see how this exchange was a perfect example of two polar opposites coming together, seeing eye-to-eye without resorting to name-calling. More importantly, I wonder how many can appreciate the process it took to find a satisfying compromise — in a way such that all voices could be heard and represented. This is hard, hard work. It requires acknowledging one’s various social privileges first, and then checking them at the door. It requires swallowing pride and educating oneself beyond the whitewashed, convenient history we were taught in school. It is lifelong work.
When Kaepernick took a knee in 2016, perhaps he was ahead of his time. He faced immediate blowback from the white majority. It’s almost five years later, and only now are white Americans finally beginning to catch on, catch up, or grasp the root cause of Kaepernick’s 2016 movement.
Sometimes I feel discouraged by the long way we still have towards equality for all. Not only does our current president use racial discord to his favor; he campaigned on it, “won” the election on it, and governs on it to this day, as recently as his Twitter feed 10 minutes ago. On the daily, he exploits the most primordial instincts and primal fears of white men and white folks in general.
His approval ratings may be waning, but still he has a large white following. Certainly, not all white folks who voted for Trump are white supremacists and racist bigots who mistake jingoism for patriotism, but, all white folks who voted for Trump found it perfectly acceptable to hand the fate of our democracy over to someone who is. We can — and we must — do better. And I feel encouraged, in light of recent horrific events, that we will.
Thank you, Colin Kaepernick. The ripple you started is now a tidal wave, finally heading towards the shore.