It Happens Here Too: #TakeAKnee and Racism in Rider Nation

When a black man in North America responds to racism by lashing out, justifiably, in anger, he is doing what no black man really wants to do – fulfilling a racist stereotype.  Unfortunately for him, the stereotype of the angry black man, then, removes the wind from one of the only sails he may have in this society: his passionate discontent for its horrific racism.  For a black man, to be outraged at racism does not draw attention to the problem, but rather only confirms the dominant culture’s view that black men are angry, violent, and dangerous – therefore reifying the very racism he seeks to destroy, hardening the very problem he seeks to overcome.

So what, then, when one decides to enact an inherently peaceful protest such as #TakeAKnee?  The protests, which started a year ago with the now unemployed superstar Colin Kaepernick and have since spread vastly in reach, have touched even our home, Saskatchewan, where the Roughriders football team linked arms in solidarity with #TakeAKnee protestors during the national anthem before their game on September 24th of this year.  Is it possible to imagine a more inherently non-violent protest than this?  This silent, sombre, personal reflection on the state of things?  Clearly not.  Ironically, what is possibly the world’s most peaceful protest has been met with bitter outrage from many members of the dominant white group, including its most powerful leader, the president of the United States of America.  Prominent black American political commentator Van Jones has referred to this type of reactionary anger as a “whitelash.”  Yet so far, no one has implicated this anger as an inherent aspect of essential male whiteness.

Quite the contrary, in fact; the outrage targeting those who kneel in protest during the US national anthem serves chiefly to maintain the innocence of those who express it.  If the flag is to be a symbol of white American identity (and supremacy) then it must be upheld as infallible, venerable, and great.  The stalwart efforts of many conservative Americans to defend it as such solidify its exclusivity, which is the very aspect of it that black NFL players are protesting in the first place.  It’s no wonder then that the #TakeAKnee protests have caused such a stalemate in the US racial-political sphere, in which only those who defend the flag are allowed to share in its infallibility, veneration, and greatness.  After all, they believe it presently represents them well, and they are presently right.  They are wrong, however, to believe it represents black America with the same sort of prideful nuance in the current context.  For much of black America, to defend the flag as infallible is to erase the terror, inhumanity, and atrocities that the America it represents has perpetrated and continues to perpetrate.

Unlike the country’s white ancestors, the ancestors of most black Americans did not come to the United States by choice.  They did not choose to “join the union”, so to speak.  Their interest in saluting the flag of a country to which they’ve been assigned by ancestral kidnapping ought to be shaky at best.   To have such an interest be an admission of forgiving and forgetting, which, it seems, is what people want blacks to do.  To forgive and forget is difficult though, in light of the ongoing aftershocks of slavery that the US continues to experience: racism, police brutality and lynching, and the ongoing exploitation of black bodies through physical labour as in, you guessed it, professional sports.  Forget that the NFL team “owners” are predominantly white and the players they “own” are predominantly black.  Forget that the NFL has been legally implicated for negligence in the repeated traumatic brain injury of its players.  Forget that professional athletes in the US can still be victimized by police brutality in cases of mistaken identity (see tennis player James Blake).  The “shutup-and-play” mentality held by predominantly white sports fans smacks of an earlier more evil era, in which blacks were to be valued for their physical labour only, and not at all for their personhood.

In our own small, predominantly white province of Saskatchewan, Canada, we’re known for our “Rider Pride”, referring to our ongoing love affair with our professional football team, aforementioned: the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.  Many of the team’s players are black Americans, beloved here in Canada for their incredible athleticism on the field.  The enthusiastic people of Saskatchewan come out in the tens of thousands to support their players in live football match-ups in Regina, Saskatchewan.  The atmosphere at live games is often celebratory, rowdy, euphoric even.  However, when unarmed Roughrider Joe McKnight, who was black, was fatally shot by Ronald Glasser, white, in a road rage incident in Louisiana in 2016, nobody in the province said boo.  This, even though police in Louisiana released Glasser from custody despite finding him at the scene of the crime with a gun in his possession.  Glasser would not be arrested for manslaughter until four whole days later.  Police cited Glasser’s cooperative nature as part of the reason for his delayed arrest.  Sadly, in Saskatchewan, McKnight seems to remain nothing more than a forgotten footnote on a CFL stats sheet.  There was zero public conversation of note, let alone outrage, regarding his death or the implications of race inherent to its circumstances.  Zero.  It would seem that McKnight’s death and the questions of race surrounding it were outside of the local public consciousness.  But at the same time that McKnight was killed, the Roughrider flag flew proud in many a man-cave.

In our province, there has been no acknowledgment within professional football circles (and no doubt, few others) of the ongoing effects of anti-black racism in sports and society, save for a new celebratory “Diversity is Strength” campaign, involving no discussion of power or institutional racism. Meanwhile, black quarterbacks and coaches in the province and country often face vehement and racially motivated opposition from the so-called fan base.  Here in Saskatchewan, when we fly the Rider flag, we are indeed professing publicly a certain kind of love for our black brethren, but all too often, we risk ignoring, covering up even, any implication of racism in our province.  That is what symbols can do.  That is the power they have.  And so, sometimes, we must take a little of their power away.  And redistribute it, as justice would have it.

So power to those who will not just shut up and play.  Power to those who protest.  Power to those who question. And all power to the people.

– KD