This current moment feels like a time of reckoning for our country, particularly for White Americans like myself. I’ve been reflecting on the renewed controversy this week over Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests. At the time, folks objected, saying it was disrespectful to the flag. I admit it made me uncomfortable. The most common comment I heard from white friends is that maybe he had a valid beef, but he needed to “find a better way” to protest.
This week, as I understand it, there was renewed criticism of kneeling protests by New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees. After severe backlash from the public and prominent black NFL players, Brees apologized, and then the NFL apologized for not listening to black players, and stated support for players’ rights to speak out.
What has changed, obviously, is that there are now widespread, worldwide protests, calling attention to the same issues Colin Kaepernick tried to highlight in 2016. In this moment, there is again debate about what is the “right” way to protest. Again, we say that we understand there are issues, but folks “need to find a better way” to protest.
So, what is the “better way” to protest? Better for who? The word “protest” means “an expression or declaration of objection, disapproval, or dissent, often in opposition to something a person is powerless to prevent or avoid.” So a protest is often something I’d prefer not to hear. Maybe I strongly object to hearing. So perhaps a “better way” to protest is a method that reduces my discomfort in addressing the underlying issue? So, am I asking someone who feels intense pain over a situation that he or she has no control over to state it in such a way that causes me no discomfort?
If that’s the case, will I even listen? I know, as a parent, kids’ complaints often didn’t register until they hit the screaming phase. When I think about it, Colin Kaepernik was protesting peacefully. He didn’t loot, burn, yell, or interfere with the game. My understanding is that he even consulted a former green beret for advice as to how to respectfully protest during the national anthem. And yet, we still found this “disrespectful” and not the “right way” to protest. Is it possible, we just didn’t want to hear? Is it possible it took what is going on today to hear? To change the NFL’s position?
Perhaps, if we ask people to protest peacefully, we should listen when they do.