Colin Kaepernick, National Anthems, and the Abstractions of Patriotism



I took a poetry class in my junior year of college. I almost failed it for numerous reasons. It could have been because I kept trying to write all of my poems about how much I hated frat bros, or how life was really just one big metaphor for the game Battleship, and maybe my teacher had a soft heart for frat bros and monotonous board games. More than likely though, I almost failed because, at the time, I couldn’t understand the concept of abstractions. One of the most overlooked aspects of poetry is the writer’s ability to write in concrete details as opposed to larger, less tangible ideas. For instance, instead of writing about love or happiness, one should write about the bodily sensations that occur when a person feels those emotions (bodily sensations may have been a poor choice of words).

I was never particularly good at escaping abstractions. They are both difficult and easy at the same time; difficult to explain but easy to use. Don’t worry, this is not an attempt by me to write a piece about how America is one giant poetry class, but it is about its abstractions. Furthermore, it is about one of the biggest abstractions we as Americans like to play with: patriotism.

Patriotism is not a set of principles. There is not a blueprint to being a “patriot” of your country, and many times the concept is relative to the argument you are trying to make about yourself or other people. Herein lies the problem with talking about Colin Kaepernick. Colin Kaepernick is many things. He is the guy who went from almost-superbowl champion to the guy competing with Blaine fucking Gabbert for his job as starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. He is the guy who you really can’t tell whether he is a throwing quarterback or running quarterback or if he is actually either one of those. He is also the guy who you pick up in your fantasy league in week 8 when your quarterback is on bye week because you have convinced yourself this is week to make the comeback (I am on a 3 year streak of doing this…multiple weeks).

However, now social media would rather have a different discussion; is Colin Kaepernick a “real american” for sitting during the national anthem to protest the oppression of black Americans? Tomi Lahren videos and Facebook memes might tell you that he doesn’t respect the lives of the police, that what he is doing is disrespectful to the brave men and women of the armed services who fight to give him the right to protest in the way that he is. Talking heads want to discuss the timing of his actions and whether they outweigh his message. They want you to think about his message in relation to the money he makes or the family that he grew up in, and to ask yourself how real is his cause. So let me ask you a question: if Colin Kaepernick is not a patriot for this country, then what exactly should he be doing to prove that he is?

Let’s start with something more specific: does a “real American” need to sacrifice his status and position in life to prove his patriotism? The most prominent claims against Kaepernick are that his paychecks are so large that the notion he could possibly feel oppressed or even him discussing oppression is a sign that he’s ungrateful of the position he’s been given. In this scenario, it would, presumptively, be better for Colin Kaepernick to make his argument from a point of poverty rather than wealth and fame because that would legitimize his claim. If he is rich, how could the color of his skin possibly affect his life? And if we can’t understand how it could, then clearly he’s using race as a bait to put himself in the news. The argument continues with “if he really wanted to help, we would give away his money to do support oppressed black people.”

However, consider for a second the confusing nature of that logic. Imagine Colin Kaepernick gave away all of his money. Imagine he gave every penny he had to the various military charities and foundations around the world. Is he more a patriot now? Does the act of taking away his social status to martyr himself for his cause quench your thirst to have him prove he does love this country?  Yet, if you strip Colin Kaepernick of his money and status, then doesn’t that also strip him of the capability to inflict change in the communities you are daring him to make? Must you be invisible to be a patriot?

The next question would be when should a person show their patriotism? Drew Brees stated that while he respected the message Kaepernick made, he didn’t appreciate the timing of it. Timing, another abstraction without specification. Is he disrespecting the country only if he makes a statement at certain times? Do his statement gain value if they are not made during the national anthem, and if so, when should they be made instead? A further complication here is that there are only complications not solutions for what Kaepernick did. There are only those who chose to tell him what he shouldn’t have done instead of what he should have. There are those that believe if he had made these comments and unspecified, imaginary location and time other than when he made them, he would somehow have been better off. Unfortunately, time is harder to define than it is to manipulate.

Kaepernick’s status as an athlete cannot be ignored either. Imagine for a second this was Lebron James who did this. Actually, imagine this was Colin Kaepernick right after his Super Bowl performance, a promising team, and bright future. Imagine this isn’t a middling quarterback on the verge of a major career setback. Would he be more accepted for his choices? Would you care as much if you thought more favorably to his athletic performance? Lebron and Carmelo Anthony have been making politically charged statements about police brutality for several years now, and Kaepernick has been as consistent on the issue as they have. However, we only seem to be upset about one of these men and not the other.

Social Status, Timing, Performance, Background. As we try to define what a patriot is in this particular case, all we really accomplish is branching off into more and more abstractions. We would rather discuss Kaepernick’s actions in such a linear, broad approach of guilty or innocent that we miss the nuances and specificities of his actions as a black athlete in a racially tense society. Even when those of us skilled and positioned correctly to discuss the racial component of his protest to the struggles of black americans in this country, we as a society fight back on that notion by generalizing racial issues into a cross we all bear; another abstraction.

How do you extinguish racial injustice if we won’t even allow ourselves to define it? How do we decide when and how a political protest should be made? Finally, how do we decide who is fit for our standards to make that argument without questioning their patriotism to their country? The urge to politicize military members and policemen, as well as the urge to generalize the principles this country abides by to detract from those who seek social change serves no purpose other than muddy clear waters. It is lazy and unproductive.

Trying to narrativize Kaepernick as American or un-American only hurts our own arguments. While he continues to push an agenda on a specific racial issue worth discussing, we drown ourselves in talking points. Colin Kaepernick isn’t the problem. Our inability to stop bullshitting ourselves is. Talking in specifics makes us uncomfortable, and if we are, maybe we all need to learn how to shut the fuck up and listen to someone who isn’t.



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