Protesting the protestor

Extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze for the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City on Oct. 16, 1968. Australian silver medalist Peter Norman is at left. (AP Photo)

Flags and songs aren’t people. They don’t have feelings or emotions.

The American flag and the national anthem are not capable of “feeling” respect or disrespect, any more than a dishcloth or AC DC’s “Highway to Hell.”

So, when some Americans say in anger, “He disrespected the flag” or “She disrespected the anthem!” what they’re actually saying is, “They disrespected my feelings for the flag and my feelings for my country.” I don’t deny the authenticity of their anger or their right to express it.

What I do have a problem with is their presumption. The presumption that everyone’s feelings for America should be the same – or the same as theirs.

The American experience is not uniform (and never has been). For example, as a white American male, I haven’t felt the sting of systemic racism. But just because I haven’t felt it doesn’t mean it’s not there; it simply means I didn’t experience it personally. So systemic racism did not shape my American experience, the way it shaped George Floyd’s family or the experience of millions of other African Americans.

For me to understand something that I haven’t experienced, I need to listen and employ empathy. And if there’s one thing in short supply in America, it’s empathy.

Many Americans don’t want to hear about someone else’s experience, especially if it does not mirror their own. So, when they see an Olympic athlete protest, they immediately dismiss the protester as ungrateful, selfish, and un-American. They never pause to consider that individual’s experience – they don’t want to know why the person is protesting – they simply point a finger and condemn or compare the protesting athlete to one who did not protest.

But when Americans see an aggrieved citizen of a communist country stand up for their rights, we (almost uniformly) celebrate their protest as brave and heroic. Demonstrating that even though empathy is in short supply, there’s an abundance of hypocrisy in the USA.

America was not born perfect. In the past, women and blacks could not vote, gay people could not marry, and civil rights were a pipe dream. And so, Americans (including Olympic athletes) fought, protested, and marched against these injustices.

And even though we stand head-and-shoulders above most other countries when it comes to freedom and opportunity, we are not yet that “perfect union” – that’s always going to be a goal. It’s always going to be America’s journey. And along the road to that more perfect union, Americans (and American athletes) protest or march or fight to shed light on things like racism, sexism, and voter suppression.

That’s been our history, and it has served us well.

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