Our Country Is Not Its Symbols. Our Country Is Our Freedoms

In the wake of Colin Kaepernick “speaking out” against systemic racism in America, there has been both backlash and support. The backlash has been brutal, with people accusing him of disrespecting his country and our veterans.

It is mind-boggling how some people view someone protesting inequality as un-American.

Those who chastise the NFL quarterback for his stance against racism argue that he disrespected an American symbol, and thus America, by refusing to stand during the national anthem. Many of these people say they agree with his underlying message, but not the form of his protest.

Kaepernick’s underlying message is one of equality, a founding principle of this country. That principle should be protected at all costs. Yet, the people who speak against Kaepernick’s method of protest argue that a symbol is more important than a tenet of this country.

A symbol, to them, is more important than the idea that all of us are created equal – an idea of which we, and all generations of Americans – and humans in general -, are stewards.

Kaepernick understands this sacred duty, saying:

I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed. … If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right.

His choice to exercise his right to protest was a thoughtful one. He chose to sit during the national anthem. The often unsung third verse of this American symbol celebrates slavery and reinforces the idea that freedom is not for everyone.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

These words are in stark contrast to American exceptionalism. If we are to believe that we are the greatest nation in the world, then we must live it every day and when we see that people are not living up to that exceptionalism, when we see that people are routinely enforcing systemic racism and inequality, we must challenge that. That is our duty as Americans.

In fact, that is our duty as human beings.

It is odd that we live in an age where standing up for equality is seen as un-American. We must ask ourselves why that is and how we got to that point. The truth is that we live in a society that erases the pieces of history that we do not like. We ignore historical context because it makes us uncomfortable. We ignore facts because our personal opinions are so much prettier. When cordoned off in the safety of our opinions, we are free from the responsibility of action – something which reality may force us to take.

As part of walling off reality, we’ve elevated symbols above facts and even above the tenets of freedom. Clinging to symbols allows us to ignore injustice. The outrage over Kaepernick’s protest exemplifies this, as many are more outraged over symbols than they are systemic racism.

Disregarding the full historical context of a symbol, such as the national anthem, disregards its lasting significance in modern society. The idea that a song which degrades other human beings is more sacred than equality is undeniable proof that systemic racism is alive and well – that it is pervasive – in this country.

So what can we do? We cannot merely ask ourselves what those symbols mean to us personally. We have to ask ourselves what’s the historical context of those symbols? Do they represent the archaic social construction that only some deserve freedom? If that is the historical and factual answer, then we have to let go of them. To hold onto a symbol that doesn’t represent freedom for all is to hold that symbol higher than the foundation of this country – that all humans are created equal.

*There is no harm in acknowledging, as a commenter on this post noted, that our Founding Fathers did not intend equality for all, despite their declarations. As I said, we are stewards of equality, as such, and as Americans, we cannot deny the flaw in their thinking. We must accept that it was there and then we must be better than they were. We must unravel that thread of oppression that was woven into our history.

Ask yourself what matters to you more: a symbol or your freedom. If you need to couch your answer in a “but,” then you aren’t choosing freedom, you are choosing idolatry.

Indeed, if we want a symbol around which to rally, we should look no further than Kaepernick himself. The greatest symbol of the American spirit is someone who will not rest unless we are all treated as equals, not just under the law, but also by society as a whole.

Feature image via Veeterzy/Pexels.

*This post has been edited to clarify that the idea of equality to America’s Founding Fathers was an exclusionary one.



  1. 1. I think also what many Americans fail to realize is that our fixation on our flag and national anthem are…not shared with a lot of other countries. My Swedish boyfriend asked me, apropos of this whole non-scandal, “Do you really sing the national anthem at EVERY sporting event in the US?” The idea is so alien to him; when I told him yes, he shook his head. “That’s some North Korean level of bullshit right there.” So maybe we need to examine our habits regardless of controversy.

    2.I also think it’s time to stop paying lip service to the idea that our nation was founded on the idea of equality. It wasn’t. The Founding Fathers very vehemently did not want blacks, women, and even the wrong kind of white man to be able to vote. We should value equality because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s “American.” (More on this in “Democracy in Black” and “The Great Suppression,” both of which are really good [if you haven’t read them already].)

    • Yes! This is so true. I need to edit the post to include this point – that the Founders idea of equality was elitist and we have evolved it and bettered those ideas – which are not exclusive to America.

      There is something to be said for the fact that we are not merely Americans, we are citizens of the world, and as much as we need to look beyond ourselves, we also need to look beyond our country.

      Would you mind if I edited my post and quoted your #2 point?

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