When the media caught wind of NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting during the national anthem one week ago, I knew it would only be a matter of time until additional athletes followed his lead. I was uncertain if his peaceful protest would create a rapid domino effect, or if it would be more of a slow burn, but I was confident others would support Kaepernick’s message and method.
Prior to Sunday, just two additional NFL athletes, Seattle Seahawks Jeremy Lane and Kaepernick’s San Francisco 49ers teammate Eric Reid, joined in solidarity with Kaepernick by sitting or taking a knee during the national anthem. Admittedly, I wish the numbers were greater than just two because there is indeed strength in numbers. To witness dozens upon dozens of NFL players taking a stand with Kaepernick for victims of injustice would have been a powerful act of sacrifice, unity, and courage. But people have to do what’s comfortable for them. I guess.
Aside from impatiently waiting for more athletes to take a stand by sitting, I also wondered when, if any, non-black athletes, more specifically of the NFL, would join the movement. As American citizens who exist within the same society as Black people, consciousness of the long, painful history of how people of color have been and continue to be mistreated should compel Kaepernick’s white cohorts to empathize on a human level, to some degree. Right?
Sunday it happened. Kaepernick’s national anthem protest finally transcended sports, race, and gender.
Megan Rapinoe, star midfielder for the US Women’s National Team, took a knee while the national anthem played, during a National Women’s Soccer League match. While I was thinking of an Aaron Rodgers type of athlete to be the first non-Black athlete to get in formation, Rapinoe makes a ton of sense too. She is white, female, and gay; and happens to know a little something about inequity in America. In addition to Rapinoe being one of five US Soccer women players who have been outspoken about achieving equal pay within her sport, the World Cup and Olympic gold medal winner is an advocate for LGBT rights. “And quite honestly, being gay, I have stood with my hand over my heart during the national anthem and felt like I haven’t had my liberties protected, so I can absolutely sympathize with that feeling,” Rapinoe shared with espnW’s Julie Foudy. Rapinoe also highlighted the racist reactions of Kaepernick’s critics as a motivating factor for her demonstration. “I am disgusted with the way he has been treated and the fans and hatred he has received in all of this.” Rapinoe added, “It is overtly racist. ‘Stay in your place, black man.’ Just didn’t feel right to me. We need a more substantive conversation around race relations and the way people of color are treated.”
American history proves Kaepernick is justified in his actions. The terms outlined in the Constitution affirm his right to express himself freely. But, now that a white athlete has voluntarily inserted herself into the conversation, will the tone of the narrative shift? Will America finally hear Kaepernick’s why behind his actions because a white athlete has spoken on his behalf? Are those overly critical of Kaepernick’s stance more willing to acknowledge his truth if the messenger is white? After all, a white messenger is deemed less threatening, and purer in intent. The messenger is welcomed in peace. A savior. While white validation is never sought by Black people, history has often demonstrated that greater society rejects the truth until Black pain is acknowledged by white people. Though I wholeheartedly despise the notion that white people must exercise their white privilege on behalf of Black victims to achieve progress, white supremacy made us this way.
But what about when the messenger is a white woman, like Rapinoe? And gay? Will Kaepernick’s “overtly racist” critics go full throttle by revealing there are levels to their hate — racist, homophobic, and sexist? Will they muffle Rapinoe’s voice by harping on how niche women’s soccer is in America, to the point of erasing her valiant efforts? Will the ugliness of our white patriarchal society hinder us from overcoming differences and achieving this mythical, Pollyanna post-racial society that’s so often spoken of? We both know the answer to this.
But just imagine if others, like Rapinoe, took a moment for self-reflection and documented the times they’ve experienced prejudice and injustice. How, as a member of a marginalized group, they’ve felt excluded because of their race, gender, religion, sexuality, or class. How not conforming to societal standards has often resulted in lack of freedoms. Or just simply admitted that the privileges granted to them weren’t shared by the masses, and how unfair that it is. What a powerful impact that would have on the world.
That’s what Rapinoe did. As a non-person of color, Rapinoe looked beyond race. She used her personal inferiorities as a gay women as an equalizer and connected with Kaepernick, and those he’s fighting for, on a human level. She upheld so-called American values by sympathizing with the plight of others and taking a knee for what she believes in. And if it encourages just one additional American to have a breakthrough, then it makes the vitriolic backlash directed toward Rapinoe, Kaepernick, Lane, and Reid worth enduring.
Now that brings the count to four. Will we get a fifth?