Smile Politely

Inescapable: Race is at the heart of Anthem, War Chant, and Chief backlash

“The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings”

John Metta wrote these words in his powerful essay, “I, Racist”. As a white man of significant privilege and a good deal of naivety, reading it was like being given a racial babel fish. It changed the way I discuss race, particularly with other white people, and it’s now the lens through which I view public discussions of race. To that end, I’d like to use this op-ed to have a very public discussion with the white majority in Champaign-Urbana.

When the news broke that the University of Illinois’ marching band would no longer perform the war-chant at football games, many within the white majority of this community erupted in outrage. That same white majority is still indignant over the University’s decision to retire the Chief over ten years ago. Metta’s thesis helps explain why that anger persists and why the conversations surrounding these decisions are so routinely toxic. 

Both the chief and the war chant are racist relics of a bygone era. In their removal, the white majority is forced to acknowledge that racist history. Even when native Americans specifically cited the racist nature of the war-chant and the chief as the source of their opposition, many in the white majority saw fit to paternalistically lecture actual native Americans on the “real” meaning behind these traditions. Obviously race had nothing to do with it. To hear the white majority describe it, it was an “honor” and a “celebration of their heritage” for the University to dress a white guy up in racist garb so he could do a completely fabricated and racially stereotypical dance to a made-up song during sporting events. If it were the racist caricature native Americans were claiming it to be, then to continue to support it would make us racist, and we’re not racist, so it couldn’t be a racist caricature. So sayeth we, the white majority.

When the national anthem protests kicked into high gear over the weekend, that same white majority boldly inserted themselves into a conversation people of color were hoping to have about racialized police violence to tell them that it wasn’t about race. If it’s about race then we have to confront our own compliance with a system that perpetuates racism. If it’s about race then we have to answer uncomfortable questions. If it’s about race we have to acknowledge that we haven’t done enough. Instead we come up with alternate explanations. “Of course it’s not about race, it’s about the troops. It’s about the flag. It’s about traditions!” In this way, we’ve taken the protest of black athletes calling attention to the racial injustice in their communities, and made it about anything other than that in order to protect our white feelings.

That may be part of the reason many in the white majority forego these excuses entirely and skip straight to telling those who make us uncomfortable to be silent:

“Just play football. This isn’t the proper venue. Don’t make everything political. This isn’t the proper way to protest. You should be grateful you get to make millions to play a game.”

When these statements are viewed through the lens of race and the protection of white feelings, the conversation looks a lot different:

“Shut up. Perform for me. Stop making me think about this. You can have your equality so long as it doesn’t inconvenience me in any way. I support your cause as long as I don’t have to do anything to support it. Stop being so uppity.”

Sadly, these sentiments are the same ones that in 1963 caused Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to write, as he sat in the Birmingham county jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

An “absence of tension” over of the “presence of justice.” This is clearly what we in the white majority would prefer. History is littered with examples of white Americans chastising black athletes for interrupting their sporting experience in order to draw attention to racial inequities. The same things people are saying now about NFL players taking a knee, or in response the decision to retire the chief/war-chant are the same things that were said about Jackie Robinson when he refused to stand for the national anthem in the 40’s. Or when Ali spoke out against Vietnam, or when Smith and Carlos raised their fists on the Olympic podium.

This was never about tradition, or a flag, or history, or the anthem. This isn’t about the manner of protest either. Whether it’s sitting, speaking out, kneeling, or raising a fist, the reaction of the white majority is the same.This is and always has been about the unease many white people in this community and this country have when asked to confront race and racial inequality. This is why the anthem protests upset us, and the removal of the chief causes us to respond so emotionally. We are being asked to acknowledge our privilege. We are being forced to pay attention to things that make us uncomfortable. 

On the subject of privilege, we need to realize that even something so simple as our outrage in these situations is a privilege in that we get to be upset when others ask for equal treatment.

It is privilege that allows us to turn off the tv during an NFL game and avoid having to think about racial inequity. That same privilege allows us to be outraged at the university for daring to save their marginalized students from having to rationalize that university’s endorsement of a racist caricature. This same privilege allows us to say that I don’t think the issues you care about are important enough to interrupt my sporting events.

Most importantly, it is the privilege to believe that the insufficient progress we’ve made in regards to racial equality is sufficient enough to excuse our avoidance of discussions involving race simply because those discussions make us uncomfortable. We cannot continue to hijack discussions about race and racial inequality in an attempt to make it about anything other than race in order to protect our feelings. We need to understand that when communities that are routinely disenfranchised, targeted and brutalized by the police, gentrified, and economically exploited want to talk about the issues they’re facing, we are not the victims.

I’m writing this as a member of the white majority in this community, to the white majority in this community. When people of color tell us that they are being harmed, that the system we allow to perpetuate is negatively impacting them, we must resist the urge to reflexively and paternalistically tell them they’re wrong simply because we are uncomfortable with the implications of them being right. 

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