Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

cementfeetEmpathy is an easy enough word to define.  The capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s position.

We are all in need some growth in this area, and I am the first to admit it about myself. Even after international travel, a very diverse friend group, and years of studying exactly this topic, I still sometimes struggle to imagine what another person is going through.

In the heated political rhetoric de jour, I think a lot of vitriolic anger could be better directed if we took five seconds to recognize that the way people perceive the world is a result of their shaping and their stories. Expecting someone to perceive the world through our own eyes is ridiculous without a little frame of reference.

Which brings us to the topic scorching through the intersections of race relationships, police brutality, freedom, and obviously the least important denominator: sports. Of course I’m talking about Colin Kaepernick’s well-documented refusal to stand during the national anthem of his last few football games.

Before we knee-jerk our way into our own torn ACLs, and offer up some takes-so-hot they’ll-burn-your-uvula coming out, let’s remember our vocabulary lesson from earlier. Place yourselves in the shoes of someone else for just a second.

And I’m not talking about Colin.

The critiques have been venomous and varied: many have accused him of being spoiled and privileged (here’s looking at you Matt Walsh), not American enough (Donald Trump), not respectable enough (former coach Jim Harbaugh), not proud of the Armed Forces (former teammate Alex Boone), or other bizarre charges.

I’m sure it is not lost on him that he is in the top 1% of the world’s wealthiest. He has the privilege of name and face recognition, to go along with the ability of playing a game for a living after receiving a full-ride through college. But if you read the transcript or saw the actual interview, you would see that Colin isn’t sitting as a form of protest for his own mistreatment, or how he has necessarily been oppressed.

The Donald has repeatedly talked about the “terrible things” going on in America. His slogan “Make America Great Again” makes his case explicit. Yet when someone else calls attention to the problems facing a demographic different from that which Trump is pandering, he is quick to suggest that Kaepernick “go somewhere else” without thought as to where exactly. I guess only old, white, billionaires can complain about how bad things are.

Respectability politics have never done anything to advance the cause of civil rights, despite what Charles Barkley would try and convince you of. When Harbaugh says “I don’t respect his protest,” it is the same call to respectability – “Stop acting out, Colin.” But Harbaugh goes one step further. “I don’t respect his reasons,” which elevates his critique to the very denial of the personhood and lived experience of another person. Kaepernick didn’t say anything that was false. Yet since Harbaugh hasn’t been victimized by discrimination (as a former privileged, white NFL quarterback himself) he feels that he can denounce the reality that is shared by people different from him.

After blocking for Kaepernick for 5 years, former teammate Alex Boone made headlines by suggesting that if he had protested like this in previous years, they “would have had a problem on the sideline.” This thinly veiled threat of violence is actually exactly what is being protested, but the facts can’t be bothered with in this case.

What I have noticed is that most of the people who are angry with Kaepernick have three things in common. First, almost every single one of them is white. This is a pretty obvious one, but it is interesting when America pretends to be colorblind. Second, almost none of them have actually talked to Colin about what he is protesting. Most of them think he is disrespecting the military or ungrateful for those who have died in the line of service. He has directly addressed this complaint, but again, facts don’t really matter. In fact, his teammates who had the exact same critiques went and talked to him. Now they know better. Third, it strikes me that almost every person that is criticizing him is proving that his point is exactly right.

Black America has had a complicated relationship with the country that whites are often so fond of. We forget that one of the biggest reasons America wanted her independence was for the ability to maintain the slave trade, which had recently been outlawed in Britain. We forget that our highly regarded constitution includes the 3/5 Compromise, which not only treated blacks as only 60% of a person but also disproportionately increased the political power of slave-holding states. We forget that there were several hundred years of America before blacks were allowed to live free, and another hundred after that where they weren’t allowed to eat at the same lunch counter. The end of Jim Crow and the 2nd Great Migration meant the beginning of housing, employment, and infinitesimal other discrimination as they moved north. Black Wall Street was burned by white rioters and looters. Black neighborhoods were sectioned off and systematically shattered. The War on Drugs tore apart the black family, and Mass Incarceration has created a permanent underclass. Blacks have fought in wars, only to be treated worse by their own countrymen than the enemy. Segregated units in World War II reported that white units often treated captured German soldiers more humanely. Historically disproportionately poor, blacks have often served in the military at a higher rate than whites and are often entered as enlisted (rather than as officers) at a higher rate, meaning they make fewer decisions and do more dying. I can’t imagine why they aren’t more nostalgic for the idealized past, where they would be slaves again.

And the precious Star Spangled Banner in question? You should read the 3rd verse. Yet when they suggest that something isn’t right – “Stop acting out, Colin.”

There’s no need to walk a whole mile in their shoes, just a few steps should be sufficient. Without the empathy to even be willing to try them on, we get plenty of people who are only concerned about themselves. Racialized insults flooded Twitter. Threats of violence were broadcast on ESPN. Alt-Right knuckleheads suggested self-deportation back to Africa, as if somehow blacks should pay their own way back to Africa against their will after being forcefully brought here the first time. Colin Kaepernick was demonized as a spoiled brat who had never been oppressed.

Yet that isn’t even the point. All of the wrath spewed his way reinforces everything he said. And privilege always spews wrath when it is confronted.

How can we be so quick to anger and slow to listen? Where is the church in this?

It reminds me of that scene in World War Z, and yes I am a zombie movie aficionado. An Israeli Intelligence officer is telling the story of the 10th Man, how they learned to always have a Devil’s Advocate in meetings. They had unanimously agreed that the Holocaust was impossible. They had unanimously agreed that participating in the Munich Olympics was safe, only to have a large part of the Israeli delegation murdered. They were unanimously unprepared for the Arab invasion in 1973. As a result, one person on the council now always had to disagree, just to help think through the worst case scenarios. In the movie, this was in reference to building a giant wall to keep the zombies out, but what if we applied it to the race conversation? If everyone you know agrees that racial discrimination is over, that disproportionate police brutality is a myth, and that America is a “color-blind” society, why not be the one voice of dissent?

Imagine for a few minutes what it would mean if what “they” are saying is true? Can this be our group exercise in empathy?

Would that change how you approached conversations? Would it change the jokes you tell and the ones you laugh at? Would you be compelled to action? Spurred on to more learning? That’s what it did for me. Maybe it can help you too.

What are your thoughts on Colin Kaepernick? Why are you upset with him or why do you support him?

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