Pre-season football 2016 started with a controversy. Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, sat during the National Anthem in August. At first, his silent protest went unnoticed. Eventually, however, news outlets picked up the story and Kaepernick was interviewed about his reasons for this action. His explanation was one of civil rights and he was quoted as saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” As one might expect, voices from all across the nation and across the world had very strong opinions about the appropriateness of the protest.
For some, this protest was clearly seen as an act of disrespect to the American flag and to the United States of America. For others, Kaepernick’s protest was not at all about disrespect but provided voice for those in the African-American community who were not being heard. For example, shortly after the protest began, Kaepernick’s jersey became a best-seller, which strongly implies that he had become a figure of influence and role model for many.
A conversation at a coffee shop put the issue rather starkly. A friendly gathering quickly turned into a vitriolic argument about Colin Kaepernick, patriotism, race, and American culture. One white participant ‘knew’ why someone would buy a Kaepernick jersey: provocation and willful disrespect of the flag. When pressed, though, she admitted that she had not talked to anyone who bought one.
As a white, heterosexual male, I felt overwhelmed, frustrated, and ashamed by this complex conversation. Race and whiteness were terms bandied about–and yet, many, many voices were missing. There were no African-Americans in that conversation. The conversation stunned me into silence and confusion.
This coffee shop exchange was not a dialogue on race. It was instead a self-imposed echo chamber. It is patronizing to suppose that we already ‘know’ what someone else is thinking. In Beyond the Pale: Reading Ethics from the Margins , Dr. Darryl Trimiew rightly critiques the Niebuhr brothers for their 20th Century reflections on race without “dialogical relationship[s] with Blacks . . . .” He calls the Niebuhr perspective White myopia and a blind spot: ” . . . [Reinhold Niebuhr] saw racism as primarily a White sin but also as a White problem that Whites were primarily responsible to solve.” The corrective? Because of White myopia, too many times Whites have ‘known’ what will solve racism in America. That pretension no longer holds; indeed, it never did.
What is the role of the church in all of this? This is a crucial time for the United Church of Christ. For the church to claim a spot as a lead institution in a diverse United States of America, congregations need to be more than just spaces to have a conversation about race. Majority white congregations need to examine and confess White myopia. White congregations need to deconstruct Niebuhr’s idea that ‘we’ have a solution. What our African-American brothers and sisters are saying and doing about the state of race in America is vitally important. The United Church of Christ is uniquely positioned to help this process along–resourcesabound to get the church started. This process will not be easy nor without heartache and confusion for many. But the time has come.
Rev. Joseph Hedden is Pastor of Emmanuel Reformed (Hill’s) United Church of Christ in Export, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. He serves as Dean of the Penn West Conference Academy for Ministry and also chairs the Global Missions Team for the Conference.