On Wednesday I had the pleasure of going to hear NFL Hall of Famer and honorable Justice Alan Page speak about race, justice, and equality at the Minneapolis Central Library. The lecture was billed as being about Colin Kaepernick and the flood of National Anthem protests that followed his lead in the NFL. This is an issue about which I’ve had great interest, so I was anxious to hear what someone like Alan Page had to say about it. It seemed to me that Hall of Fame football player of color who also happened to be a State Supreme Court Justice might have the perspective on this that we really need. I’ve never been so pleasantly disappointed in my life.
Justice Page opened by saying (and I’m paraphrasing), “I know many of you came to hear today to hear what I have to say about Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem protests, but you may be disappointed to hear that I don’t really have much of an opinion on it because I find it to be the reddest of red herrings out there”. Page went into detail about how it is that a phenomenon like the Kaepernick protest almost always pivots away from conversations about the real and more important issue of justice and equality. While he’s right, I still find the Kaepernick protest an interesting and fruitful topic, but Page’s point did clearly point out a real problem in America today; more specifically white America.
Much of what Page had to say was not new to me since I’ve been studying the concepts of privilege, oppression, and justice over the last year, but that by no means gets me off any hook. As I sat and listened to him carefully and thoroughly outline the ways in which slavery has real and present effects on our culture today, it dawned on me just how unwilling white America really is to have this conversation. I was only willing to have it a year ago when it was forced on me in Seminary.
This unwillingness to have this conversation for real became evident to me that very same day as Page’s lecture, when I found myself in mild Twitter battle with someone I don’t know about the importance of white Americans getting educated on these concepts based off a Tweet of mine that MPR retweeted while Kerri Miller’s midmorning show was having the real conversation. And guess what happened? It didn’t take long before we were no longer Tweeting about race, power, privilege, and oppression, but were breaking down the Democratic nomination in 2016.
And this is how it goes in White America. When the conversation of race comes our way, we find ways to pivot out of it. In August of 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem of a preseason game, because he felt he couldn’t stand for a nation where black people are disproportionately incarcerated and killed by law enforcement. It didn’t take long before no one was talking about race, privilege, and systems of oppression because we quickly pivoted to talking about the military, free speech, and the importance of the flag. Alan Page was 100% right that Kaepernick has become the reddest of red herrings. As long as we keep talking about him, we don’t have to actually talk about race.
Thursday began Black History Month. I remember taking time in school every year when I was a kid during the month of February to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King. I am grateful to have grown up in a school system, where learning these things was a priority. However, they didn’t go far enough. It seems to me that much of what we learn about when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement is also a red herring. Or at least a pacifier. It teaches us enough to let us see that the plight of black and brown bodies have been hard in this country, but the teaching largely keeps the conversation in the past, pacifies white guilt, and calls little to nothing out of us.
And what’s worse is I never learned until a year ago that this thing we say we all want, called justice and equality will (and must) cost something from people like me. This is why we refuse to have the real conversation about the realities of power, privilege, and oppression. I simply do not have the space and time to outline the details of this here, and it’s not exactly my point in writing this anyway.
What is my point? It’s to say this: Fellow white folk… We’ve got some deep learning and listening to do. Just start there- shutting up to listen and learn. Let in the troubling words and ideas that are brought forth by people of color, and stop deflecting and pivoting away from them. You don’t have to like what Colin Kaepernick did. You are allowed even to be offended by it. But watch and listen. It’s high time we started listening. Really listening. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, yes it’s frightening, and yes, it may even throw you into a bit of an internal crisis like it has me beginning a year ago. We have a lot to learn. We have a lot to listen to. And I’m not going to sugar coat it, we also have a lot to lose- a lot that we must lose if we want true justice and equality.
Thank you, Justice Page, for speaking the truth. Thank you for steering me away from the red herrings.