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When is standing for the US anthem still a problem?

Kneeling for the anthem is not a meaningless gesture, and neither is standing.

Soccer: U.S. Women’s National Team International Friendly Soccer-Colombia at USA Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem ahead of a preseason N.F.L. game in 2016. In 2021, through time and the co-opting of the protest, the gesture itself lost much of its original impact. In fact, Kaepernick’s intent with the protest was to force America — particularly white Americans — to note the systemic oppression of Black people in America, and the violence and often murderousness of police.

Given this, the object of white Americans interested in anything beyond a public gesture would not be simply to kneel alongside Black people in recognition of a very real pain, but to demand an equitable country. This can only be achieved through the confronting of whiteness – the social construct that elevates being white in direct contrast and opposition to being Black, thereby promoting and upholding social, economic and political power through violence, political and economical exploitation – which created and enabled the original inequity. The goal was never to make white America kneel, but to make white America notice trauma, violence and death, and to act.

But as the act was diminished, becoming something that would no longer cost any professional athlete their career, the protest morphed from activism into a bare minimum show of unity. The excuses used to avoid this are wrapped in the very thing that so commonly and effectively oppresses, which cannot be viewed as coincidence.

While true that kneeling in and of itself doesn’t solve anything right now, that does not by default make standing — especially on particular occasions — an act that exists in a vacuum. This is more deeply true when the audience is a global one.

One of the tricks of whiteness is an entitlement to the focus of a conversation. This is often the tactic behind many of the excuses white players use to explain not showing solidarity with Black teammates, and also Black supporters and people in America and around the world. That kneeling isn’t a solution in and of itself doesn’t solidify it as an excuse, such as Kelley O’Hara attempted to do on Julie Foudy’s podcast Laughter Permitted while discussing her standing at the match after Thanksgiving; the same match where the USWNT sported ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ across their track jackets for the first time as a show of unity for the Black players on the team, and support for the overall ethos of the movement.

“For me, I’ve come to a place where I just fully believe that you can stand while also heartily believing that Black lives matter and being committed to fighting for racial justice and making this world a better place,” said O’Hara.

Then after the USWNT defeated Colombia 4-0 this past week, Carli Lloyd also shifted the focus to utilize ignorance as a defense, stating, “I’ve just been kind of away, just in my house tucked away in the woods and recovering from my injury.” And both Lloyd and O’Hara had another common defense: that they were given permission. “Players decided to kneel, some decided to stand, and at the end of the day we have each other’s backs,” said Lloyd. O’Hara went further on the podcast, saying, “As a team we had a lot of conversation around it, and we got to a place where we just decided that everyone should do what they felt comfortable with in terms of how they want to participate with the anthem.”

The latter excuse is perhaps the worst of them all because it uses the Black players — the same ones hurting and seeking solidarity and protection through unity — as a shield. Lloyd, O’Hara, and others who use this excuse seem unaware that they’re implicating themselves in a passive aggressive — to be truthful, sometimes aggressive aggressive — act. It is an almost unexplainably dumbfounding experience to have these conversations with white colleagues, in which you peel away the layers of frustration, anger and hurt that are wrapped up within and simply by existing as a Black person in this United States, only to be met with the sort of indifference that still prioritizes the traditions of whiteness — ‘Ok, I hear you and that all sounds really bad but I still have to stand for this song.’

The signal often received is an unwillingness to even approach the lowest hurdle, let alone step over it. It is difficult to face that reality so starkly, and is itself another form of hurt. Kneeling with Black teammates in front of the world is a signal to white viewers everywhere that the weight of whiteness can and should be confronted, and lessened. There is not a simpler, more defanged action that still has utility in specific contexts — such as after eight months protesting the brutal theft of Black lives without justice, and on Martin Luther King Jr Day.

Another barb thrown in defense of standing is that kneeling is not The Real Work, and The Real Work matters more. And while that is a true statement, albeit one devoid of any definition or context, it’s rarely if ever followed by promotion of actual anti-racist work, or a revealing of the ways in which the speaker is confronting whiteness in and around their own lives. This is the only work that helps save us, and if that were truly understood, such anti-racism work and dismantling of white supremacy work is too important and rare to ever be posited as sufficient enough for an excuse but not substantive enough to openly discuss.

Before the USWNT kicked off their first match of the year on MLK Day, the Black Women’s Players Collective — a group of Black women football players and allies that was formed in the summer of 2020 — released a statement. It noted the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and how it exposed the truth that Black and white lives are not treated the same. The statement ends with a quote from Dr. King, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

The quote is from variations of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech titled Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. The full quote is as follows:

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals. Without this hard work, time becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Oberlin College Commencement Speech 1965

This passage speaks to a long-term problem in white America in regards to the deliberate inaction of white Americans to challenge and dismantle the very deep and very real effects of whiteness. This is also why the kneeling debate is so draining. Not only has it lasted for nearly five years, but exit ramps have been built at every evolving stop to give white people a reason to not care. This latest incarnation could not be a simpler request of bare minimum humanity, and whiteness still urges some to seek a way out.