Note: This post is part of a bi-weekly series called Meme Monday. Every other Monday I post a meme I feel is oversimplified or perpetuates injustice. I will then show how the meme’s argument/theme may be more complex, unjust or incomplete.
Memes have a way of being short and sweet, and seem to demand the final word in a conversation or argument. I hope to challenge that in this series, and promote education and dialogue by analyzing what I believe to be haphazard memes. I hope you enjoy. Feel free to comment and let me know what you think!
Meme of the Week:
As many of you know, football player Colin Kaepernick has recently been kneeling during the national anthem, a protest that has spread to other athletes in the NFL and beyond. And as expected, Kaepernick has received attention and heavy criticism.
Early on, Kaepernick explained the reason for his protest, stating he cannot “show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” And let’s be clear, Kaepernick isn’t the first U.S American athlete to protest racial injustice or receive backlash from those who believe athletes should just do what they are paid to do, entertain.
But Kaepernick and his form of protest are currently front and center, so let’s look at memes made to criticize him and his protest.
This first meme embodies the loudest argument people are making: by sitting down for the anthem Kaepernick is disrespecting all the women and men throughout history who have donned military uniform. But let’s unpack this claim and misspelled meme:
1. Not all vets are feeling disrespected. Most people I’ve seen claiming his protest is disrespectful haven’t served in the military, and seem to be “patriotic” civilians generalizing the experience and reaction of vets, using them as a tool of criticism. However, the experience of each vet is complex and cannot easily be generalized. We see this complexity in the variety of veteran reactions to Kaepernick’s protest, case in point, #veteransforkaepernick hashtag.
Reactions from vets have been mixed, because experiences and identities of vets are mixed. Kaepernick is trying to call attention to injustices faced by people of color, including veterans. Black vets who come back from serving are still black within a society that is suspicious of them and their blackness. We saw this in the return of African American vets from WWII, who were barred from receiving many of the veteran benefits that helped many white vets and their families, (our grandmothers and grandfathers) get back on their feet, giving them greater chance to gain financial capital. We also see these injustices in the number of black bodies, vets and non-vets alike who are killed by police today. Through his protest Kaepernick is kneeling not only for people of color, but vets of color, who endure racism in the same country they fight for.
2. Kaerpernick isn’t denying the sacrifice and service of military women and men. . . so why do we so quickly connect his protest to disrespecting the military? We have to ask ourselves why we see the flag and anthem as so synonymous with our military. Do we believe the flag, or a song is a full enough representation of this country? Do we want this country’s symbol and character to be synonymous with our militarized nation and its rather violent history?
3. Over-romanticizing militarism/war or a song is not a healthy form of patriotism. Kaepernick is calling for the U.S to improve, and its systems to change. In fact, this call for improvement through peaceful protest was how this country began its journey of independence and self-improvement. That work continues today, and is patriotic in and of itself.
Demanding a nation improve and grow is good patriotism, just like raising children occasionally using “tough love,” is good parenting. The call for higher standards means there is belief that improvement is possible and higher expectations can be met. So let’s meet them.
4. Masculinity and patriotism takes many forms. This man in the meme is understood to be a “real” man because of his courage, sacrifice and willingness to put himself in the midst of violence and be violent himself; all for people he doesn’t know. And yet, Kaepernick is also fighting for rights of people he doesn’t know. People on domestic soil, Americans who are often treated as the enemy.
We have police departments wearing military gear, entering low-income neighborhoods as if they’re gearing up for war. We have judges selling black youth to private juvenile prisons. We have unarmed black men being shot by police for selling individual cigarettes or having a car break down. Challenging these realities requires courage, and courage doesn’t demand a “real man,” it demands dedication.
So let’s be clear, courage is non-gendered, and standing up for freedom doesn’t always require a gun (nor should it require one). So I’m not sure what a “real man” looks like, but I do know what a courageous person looks like, and it looks like both Kaepernick and this gentleman in the meme.
5. Kaepernick is battling a double standard. The Black Lives Matter Movement and people of color often face criticism for being “too loud” or abrasive in their work for social change. Oftentimes when I hear people arguing these groups should “get a job instead of wasting time in the streets,” or they should protest in more socially acceptable ways (aka in ways that are more comfortable for white people). And yet here we have Kaepernick at his job, protesting quietly, calmly and respectfully, and people still disapprove.
So what form of protest are we looking for? What form of protest would lead to real change? Or are we just looking for a protest or lack thereof, that keeps the white community comfortable and free of responsibility?
(It’s also worth noting, Donald Trump has run a whole campaign centered on the vague promise to, “Make America Great Again,” but when Kaepernick, a black man speaking to a black experience, highlights one way America is not so great, those who cannot relate, call him anti-american.)
And now for two bonus memes:
Essentially, these memes claim that just because Kaepernick has money, and grew up in a white family, his racial experience and any oppression he’s endured is somehow canceled out.
And yet, if we look deeper, we find these memes point to the complexity of injustice and identity.
It’s true Kaepernick is upper class. He has money because a society finds value in the entertainment he provides. If you watch any football whatsoever, you are participating in the system that makes Kaepernick and his teammates rich.
It is also true Kaepernick was raised by white parents, and is himself a biracial man. He has known what it means to be upper middle class and the opportunities that come with that. BUT HE STILL EXPERIENCED THAT AS A BLACK MAN.
Kaepernick identifies as a black, biracial man, and has spoken about that struggle. Money or not; white parents or not; Kaepernick still walks down the street as a black man. This means the experience of a white, upperclass suburban man does not look identical to Kaepernick’s, because his racial identity complexifies his experience. And we as a society need to understand such complexities are EVERYWHERE.
Race, economic class, gender etc, all form different layers of identity, that then create complex individuals and societies. We cannot oversimplify our own identity, and we cannot oversimplify Kaepernick’s identity, as if his money or parenting erases his experience as a black man.
In reality, much of the backlash Kaepernick has experienced has actually helped prove his point, and highlights the injustice surrounding the black community. The fact that he has been shunned, called horrible racial slurs and struggled to be taken seriously as a protestor reflects the difficulty this nation has claiming that black lives matter, and listening to black voices already speaking and leading conversations (to the discomfort of many white people).
And so, instead of talking over black voices and people of color, we should listen. We should resist buying into easy answers and oversimplified identities. We should challenge the temptation to uplift military and nation at the expense of dehumanizing a whole group of people, and belittling the injustice and violence they endure.