I haven’t written very much about Colin Kaepernick’s Black Lives Matter protest because I feel like it’s been covered very thoroughly and I haven’t had much to add. Even when the Penguins and Crosby decided to go to the White House, I was disappointed, but didn’t really feel the need to write. Then, this morning, I saw a CBC article posted by Hockey Night in Canada on my Facebook Feed: As Athletes Protest, Crosby and NHL strike an off-key chord. It was the comments on this article that have brought me to my keyboard because it seems like a perfect opportunity to explore white fragility through tangible examples. I have not blacked out the names because these were comments made in a public forum, and free speech is not the same as consequence free speech.
Robin DiAngelo explains white fragility as a racial stress that white people encounter when they are forced to confront their own race and privilege. She lists the following as triggers for white fragility:
- People of colour talking directly about their racial perspectives (e.g. Colin Kaepernick saying words)
- Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (e.g. explaining that these protests are about racial injustice and being met with, “It’s not about race!”)
- People of colour choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (e.g. protesting racial injustice in a public forum where they know white people will have to see them)
- A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations – challenge to white solidarity (e.g. Bob Costas explaining that protesting is patriotism)
- Being presented with a person of colour in a position of leadership (e.g. Steph Curry denying the White House invitation)
What does white fragility look like in practice?
- self-defence (e.g. blame others, falsely position that discomfort as dangerous, reinscribe racist imagery, claim victimhood)
- righteous indignation
- explaining whiteness as an objective standpoint
Let’s take a tour of white fragility through hockey fandom, shall we.
The argument that black players would not want to go to the White House because many of them are felons is, well, racist! If you believe that crime has more to do with the colour of one’s skin than the economic and social conditions in which they live, this is a racist belief. There were quite a few comments pointing to black on black crime as the “real issue,” which is again a way to deflect (by reinscribing racist imagery) the conversation at hand and turn the “responsibility” of progress back onto black people, as if white supremacy and privilege have nothing to do with the racial inequality that we experience today.
Stop making this protest about racial injustice about racial injustice. Doesn’t make sense does it? If the man who started the protest explained that it stemmed from witnessing/experiencing racial inequality and police brutality, then the protest is about race. You may disagree with his protest method (which I will get to below) and you may disagree with his perspective but it’s his movement, and he has chosen to kneel for racial justice. If you dismiss the concerns of racialized people and their allies as trivial, nonsensical, or irrational, then you are supporting the institution of racism.
What is an empty protest, Darren? A protest that has only gained in size, has support from the “left” and “right”, men and women, the LGBTQ community, veterans, and a diversity of people marked as those “of colour” seems the exact opposite of empty. And, if the President of the United States has decided take aim at such a protest, perhaps it is the momentum he is targeting, rather than its “emptiness.” Now, compared to North Korean tensions and hurricane relief, perhaps this “athlete protest” should not be at the top of POTUS’ to-do list; however, it is the one that threatens his base the most, so again – anything but empty.
Is sports the wrong platform to use for protest? Do you dislike when people march in the streets to protest? Do you dislike when people sit-in at government offices and have to be forcibly removed? Do you dislike when athletes sit or kneel during the anthem? If you answered “yes” to these threes options then either (1) you dislike protesting in general, or (2) you dislike the people protesting. And, if you think that “protest areas” like the ones instituted in Sochi, Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics are the answer then it sounds like you are a fan of Russian authoritarianism (you should probably get that checked out). Protests are supposed to be disruptive and I cannot think of a less disruptive way of protesting than quietly kneeling on the side of the field. The anthem still plays, the flag still waves, the game is still played. What the “flag protectors” have done is amplified Kaepernick’s silent actions into something deafening – so for that, we thank you.
Respect is earned, not given. President Trump has been disrespectful of immigrants, women, foreign leaders, his own staff, the other Republican Presidential candidates, taxpayers, and the congressional system. If you believe that authority matters then I understand your stance: do what you are told by those higher up on the chain of command. Fine. But following chain of command is very different from having respect for the Office of the President and whomever is the Commander in Chief at the time of invitation. Remember when Tim Thomas refused to visit the White House when Obama was President? That was his choice as a citizen of a free and democratic nation. It was his right not to go, just as it is the right of the Golden State Warriors. If exercising your rights are “disrespectful”, then you need to reflect on the purpose of rights and freedom of expression.
Dr. Brenda Elsay posed a great question during a recent episode of the Burn It All Down podcast: Why are athletes who protest positioned as “political” instead of moral? Should fighting for equality of human rights be a party issue? Isn’t it just a human issue? Similarly, Bhupinder Hundal from Hockey Night Punjabi argued on Vancouver sports talk radio this weekend that politics has traditionally referred to taxes or health care but racial equality has somehow been dragged into the realm of that which is “political.” Also, how is supporting the troops at games not a political statement?
If you “respect” the flag more than justice for the people who live underneath it, you might be a racist.
Fact: The Pens currently have 18 American players on their roster. But more importantly, what happened to Canadians standing up for equality and human rights? We used to beat our drum for the United Nations, peacekeeping, and multiculturalism. And, so much of Canadian identity is founded on inhabiting the moral high ground while looking down on the Americans below us (which is not actually true, but it’s the story we tell ourselves), so logically this is an ideal opportunity to demonstrate our “angel complex.” Instead, we are being polite to a fault. This is, unfortunately, also a reality of the Canadian identity.
Whiteness as a Point of Objectivity
Now let’s talk about the “stick to sports” schtick. If you believe that you have a right to talk about things not related to your day job, then congratulations – you understand part of what it means to be a citizen. Just because their day job is to play a game that does not mean that they suddenly lose the right to have an opinion. Also, when reporters show up at their places of work and ask them questions, they are fulfilling their roles as employees to talk to the press. Remember, we hate athletes who avoid the press (although I’m not sure why).
I don’t know about you but if an athlete doesn’t have an opinion about, possibly, the most polarizing US President the world has ever seen, he sounds like he is propagating the myth of the dumb jock. So sure, if you want your kids to be pegged as the dumb jock that only has one purpose in life, apparently has no stance on racial inequality/doesn’t have the spine to speak up for those less privileged/or is a closet racist then “take notice.” If sports makes men out of boys and leaders out of followers then I guess Gail and I disagree on what kind of men and leaders we want in society. And, like it or not, Crosby has expressed his opinion. He said he is “pretty aware of what is going on” and has decided to go to the White House. Just because you agree with his (non) statement, doesn’t mean it’s not a political opinion.
This was an article about an NHL team and the league’s star player, so how was this article not about hockey? If Hockey Night in Canada posted an article about the Graham-Cassidy Bill I would understand Jeffrey’s indignation but this was well within the realm of sports because the President made it so. DiAngelo contends that “white fragility works to punish the person giving feedback and essentially bullying them back into silence,” (p.252) and this is exactly what the “stick to sports” rhetoric does – it attempts to bully people into silence. The problem this time is that it’s not working.
If these athlete protests and discussions about racial inequality make you uncomfortable, you may be experiencing white fragility. If you think kneeling disrespects the flag, you may be experiencing white fragility. If you are willing to have this discussion but only on your terms, you may be experiencing white fragility. If the thought of P.K. Subban, Wayne Simmonds, J.T. Brown, Evander Kane, any other NHL player (regardless of colour) sitting during the anthem causes you discomfort, you may suffer from white fragility. If you feel compelled to comment below about my gender, my race, or my “social justice warrior” stance, you may also be experiencing white fragility. If your white fragility lasts for longer than four hours, you may be a racist, or, at the very least, be complicit in supporting racial hierarchies. If this is not your intention, then it is time to learn how to be an ally. Step 1 of being an ally is not dictating the terms of protest.