“Total Disrespect for Our Heritage”: What White Mennonites Can Learn from Kaepernick

Dear Joel,

Colin Kaepernick has done something no other athlete has ever managed to do for me: make me care about sports.

Don’t get me wrong–I still think that football is terrible, and I won’t be watching it, ever. Even a Super Bowl Sunday party has no appeal for me, and I’m a gal who likes wings and chili and all kinds of sour cream-based dips.

Kaepernick’s story has challenged me in particular ways as a white pacifist. As Mennonites, we don’t participate in rituals like playing the national anthem or saying the pledge, and it’s caused some backlash. Every year, when their classmates see my kids not saying the pledge, my kids have been asked why they hate God and America, and this year the elementary teacher actually welled up with tears (not in a good way) when we explained that our middle child would need to alternate assignment to singing the first stanza of “The Star Spangled  Banner” for a social studies/history project focusing on the US.

But we have an out. First, we don’t have to explain anything at all to schoolteachers or classmates about why our kids aren’t saying the pledge or standing for the anthem. We do, though, mostly because we don’t want them to assume that we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses (who also don’t say the pledge), not because we don’t respect our Jehovah’s Witnesses friends but because we don’t want to claim a label that’s not ours. Plus, our kids still get to participate in class Halloween and Valentine’s Day activities and enjoy birthday snacks, which Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t get to do.

And if a classmate asks how our kids can still be Christians but not say the pledge, our kids just say that our beliefs prohibit oath-taking. If they are feeling sassy, they explain that, as Christians, their loyalty is to God, not to any country. We only have one allegiance to give, and it certainly can’t go to the United States, a place that breaks God’s heart.

The larger story is that this isn’t a nation we love unconditionally. It’s a place we love deeply, but we’re never going to engage it uncritically, which is what the pledge and the anthem ask. We love America not as subordinates to it but as contributors to it, people who believe we can love it into being better than it is. We also think that God wants Americans, as a collective, to be better than we are. I don’t know what Colin Kaepernick thinks about God, but I think he thinks America can be better, too. At the heart of every protest is hope.

But, as white people, we don’t have to explain that when we don’t participate in these things. So Kaepernick’s actions have reminded me that it’s not a big deal for a white kid to sit out on the anthem. (And, after all, my kids aren’t taking a knee during the pledge; they’re staying quietly in their seats.)  It’s a white privilege to just be called a God-and-country hater, not a “son of a bitch.”*

As he isn’t able to actually do the work of a leader, Donald Trump continues to hold pep rallies in which he riles up racist sentiment. Yesterday’s rally in Alabama included a typically self-centered Trump meandering through an endorsement of Sen. Larry Strange, who is in a primary race against Judge Roy Moore. In one of his several tangents, he dipped into a criticism of Kaepernick, who he has a petty personal vendetta against, linking the football player’s taking a knee to a to declining viewership of televised football, which is just not accurate but is a good reminder that Trump uses TV ratings as way of judging the value of something. More concerning, though, is that he accused Kaepernick of

“Total disrespect of our heritage, a total disrespect of everything that we stand for. Everything that we stand for.”

Trump warns that “when people like you”–like the white conservatives in his audience–see Kaepernick kneel, they, their heritage (“our heritage”), and everything that they “stand for” is being “disrespected.”

And the thing is, he’s right. The white people in his audience do stand for the racial injustice and the brutal treatment of black people that Kaepernick and other players are protesting.  I don’t know any of those people cheering him on in Alabama, but I do know that every single white person I personally know who voted for Trump believes that the best parts of American culture and society are due to whites and the worst due to black people. They believe that American heritage is white heritage. And they are so protective of it that they cannot bear even one solitary black man peacefully protesting it.

Image result for kaepernick kneeling

Above, Kaepernick in his San Francisco 49ers uniform, kneeling during the anthem, flanked by other players who have followed his lead. Maybe it’s naive to look to football–a racist, violent, jingoistic sport–as a place for social change. But I’m not willing to resign any parts of American culture to racism. 

Maybe you know some Trump supporters who didn’t vote for him because of he blared his racist foghorn in their face during the entire primary. But they were willing to vote for him despite that. But my experience is pretty clear: all the Trump voters I know think that the worst thing in America isn’t racism but black people.

Kaepernick is doing work that most of us, without a nationally televised audience or a stadium of fans watching, cannot do. But we can do the work that Kaepernick’s mother has done. A white woman who reared a biracial child, she was called a “bitch” by Trump to the cheers of thousands of Southerners who likely image themselves as genteel and well-mannered, especially toward older white ladies. In a December interview, she shared that, at first, she didn’t understand her son’s choices but that she always supported him. I don’t know the racial politics that the Kaepernicks taught their son, but I am encouraged that his parents support him now.

As a white mother of white children, my goal is to rear them so that Trump and his fans in Alabama calls my kids sons of bitches, too. That likely means being more explicit about our reasons why we don’t say the pledge or sing the anthem, about not hiding behind our Mennoniteness but prioritizing our antiracism as our reason for abstaining from nationalistic rituals.

May we get ourselves to the point of “total disrespect” for the the heritage of white supremacy!


PS. Want to support Kaepernick’s mission? He’s pledged $1 million to organizations working for racial justice and care for oppressed people. That includes a recent donation to the American Friends Service Committee. The Quaker-affiliated organization currently has a giving match that doubles all donations through September 1, up to $50,000. Make your donation here–and tell Kaepernick that you appreciate his support for this peace organization.

*updated to add: We know that Trump used “son of a bitch” because, even he, who could kill a man on Main Street and not lose a vote (if that man were a person of color), cannot,  at least not right now, even in a crowd of white Alabamans, call Kaepernick “a n———-.” But we heard it, and we heard, too, Trump say “fire him” and mean “lynch him”–because this is about race, as it always has been with Trump. And we heard thousands of Trump supporters hear those words too. These are not dogwhistles but foghorns.

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