I do not follow sports, so I had not heard of Colin Kaepernick before this week. The San Francisco 49ers quarterback took a simple action Friday during a football game: He chose not to stand during the national anthem, and for that he has now become a household name. His act was one to which I could strongly relate.
Some years ago, I was at the Hollywood Bowl for a concert that had absolutely nothing to do with a national holiday, the military or the government. It was just a music event. But simply because there was a large gathering of people in one place, the venue upheld its irrational tradition of playing the national anthem and, like programmed robots, everyone in the stadium stood. I refused.
I have never stood up for the national anthem. Not the United States’ or any other country’s. Until 2009 I was an Indian citizen. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin, I once attended an Indian student association event (primarily for the free Indian food) to celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali. It had nothing to do with the Indian state. Yet inexplicably, the organizers began playing the Indian national anthem. Dutifully, everyone stood up. I refused.
I have been an immigrant since birth. I was born to Indian parents in the United Arab Emirates—a country that does not offer birthright citizenship. So right from the start, I didn’t belong. When I moved to the U.S., I still didn’t belong. It wasn’t until I was 34 years old that I finally lived in a country of which I was a citizen—a practical status that has enabled me to remain within the same borders as my husband and children. And by then, it was too late for attempts at indoctrinating the importance of nationalism in my psyche.
Kaepernick and a number of other black athletes like him have, over the years, come to the conclusion that allegiance to a country that has yet to come to terms with its enduring legacy of slavery makes little sense, particularly for African-Americans. In 1972, the legendary black baseball player Jackie Robinson wrote in his biography, “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag. I know that I am a black man in a white world.” Forty-four years later, Kaepernick similarly declared, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and many other athletes have taken similar stands over the years.
Kaepernick refused to show respect for the national anthem because he likely became aware of just how widespread the injustices facing African-Americans are, as the Black Lives Matter movement has underscored. His statements about the U.S. military, which have gotten far less attention, have suggested an ignorance of U.S. foreign policy. Asked if he insulted the military by sitting through the anthem, he denied it, saying of U.S. soldiers, “They fight for freedom, they fight for the people, they fight for liberty and justice for everyone.” Right-wing critics frothing at the mouth over his criticism of police brutality are ignoring the fact that Kaepernick’s rosy views of the military are in line with theirs. Perhaps some day the quarterback will explore Ali’s criticism of U.S. foreign policy and revise his own vacuous comments about soldiers “fighting for freedom.”
Here’s the rub: No country is worth pledging blind allegiance to. Patriotism, nationalism, anthems, flags and syrupy words about “love of country” or soldiers “fighting for freedom” are constructs aimed at fostering unquestioning obedience from people lucky enough to be deemed citizens. They are meant to quash debate and discussion and enable mobs to righteously proclaim treason by anyone who dares to dissent. GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who today best represents the vitriol of right-wing white resentment, said it best: “Maybe [Kaepernick] should find a country that works better for him.” It is a variation on a phrase I have heard a few times during my life in the U.S.: “Go back to your country.” Except that it is even more insulting to Kaepernick, who is an American by birth.
Perhaps bowing in deference to a flag or anthem fulfills some deep, primal need in humans to identify as a tribe that’s bigger and better and stronger than other tribes. Perhaps it satisfies a compulsion much like organized religion does—to find one’s place in a big, dangerous world that often makes no sense. Regardless, like religion, nationalism ought to be optional, a personal choice. If you’re into standing for an anthem written by a man who enslaved black people, and whose verse blatantly exalting slavery is simply swept under the rug, go right ahead. But don’t expect everyone to do so or chastise those who openly refuse to bend to such expectations.
To its credit, Kaepernick’s team issued a statement that showed an understanding of his rights, saying, “In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose to participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”
But apparently many Americans don’t understand that we live in a democracy where embracing the symbols of nationalism and accepting institutional abuses of power are not mandatory.
Police unions have denounced Kaepernick, whining about his “total lack of sensitivity towards police officers.” Racist Twitter users have resorted to the least intelligent epithet they could think of. In other words, Kaepernick’s critics have proven his point: that there is deep and abiding racism against black people and people of color in the U.S., and that for many Americans, there is far greater anger over an athlete sitting out the national anthem than over our ongoing epidemic of police killings of innocent, unarmed Americans who are disproportionately black.
Nationalism and blind patriotism can bring out the worst in all of us. No country is above criticism, because no country has ever gotten everything right. Most are built on legacies of mass oppression, genocide, slavery, colonialism, corruption, misogyny and racism.
We can love our family, community and neighborhood. We can—and should—participate in our civic duties to be politically active citizens for whom voting and observing jury duty are the least of our responsibilities. But waving a flag, standing up for an anthem, putting your hand over your heart like it actually means something, are hallmarks of groupthink, of a population easily swayed by pieces of colored cloth and emotionally evocative melodies.
By writing these words, I will surely be accused of not loving my country enough. I will be told to “go back to my own country” or find one that suits me better. Like Kaepernick and Robinson, those of us who are deeply critical of this nation’s failings are often working hardest to fix them, rather than papering over them. As James Baldwin wrote, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”