When it comes to matters of Black and White, there is much gray in between. I am reminded of this every day on social media, television, at work. I was reminded of it when my brother texted me close to midnight recently and said he needed to talk. My brother has never texted me that late before. I can talk now, I told him. Is everything okay? My mother’s family hurt me, he said, but let’s talk tomorrow.
My brother is technically my half-brother. Put another way, he’s my brother from another mother, my father’s second (now ex) wife. He is the father of a beautiful, vivacious six year old daughter who has a Black mother. He is the White father of a Black daughter and for the first time since her birth he is beginning to understand what this means for him and for her.
The email chain his mother’s family, all of whom grew up down south, was passing around started with a long diatribe from an 80 year old aunt against NFL players who take a knee during the National Anthem. Others chimed in and the chain became one big bashing session against spoiled, rich players who disrespect the American flag.
These are the people who, when I was 11 and went to Atlanta for Christmas with my father and stepmother, introduced me to Gone with the Wind and were proud to take me to Kennesaw Mountain and a Confederate Museum. They were proud because the Confederacy was part of their Southern heritage and it tickled them to educate me, a New England Yankee, about it.
I admit as an impressionable young girl, the romantic picture they portrayed fooled me for a while. From the time I was 11 until about 13, I read Gone with the Wind over and over until I lost count of how many times. Although I knew that owning slaves was wrong, being White allowed me to ignore that part of the story in favor of Scarlett O’Hara’s saga of survival and misguided love.
My brother was no different. Before my niece’s birth, before she came to him crying that she was afraid the police were going to take away her mommy, before he saw how excited she got when a group of peaceful protestors marched through their quiet, small town chanting Black Lives Matter, and she started to chant, too, and said Daddy, you say it, too, he would have ignored the email, by his own admission. He no longer has that option. Instead, he is grappling with how to educate himself, and his extended family, so that he can be the best, most supportive father to his little girl.
He spent days composing an email response that attempted to educate his family about the history and legacy of American slavery, systemic racism, segregation, etc. from a Black perspective (to the extent he was able) and why it might compel some players to take a knee. He sent each new draft to me for review. I wouldn’t share that video, I’d say, your Aunt (a devout Christian), will be offended by the profanity and not see past it. And, You don’t have to convince them of anything. Just say that you love our flag, too, but as the father of a Black daughter, you also see things from a different perspective. There was the not so helpful, Why don’t you point out to them that it’s ironic they’re so proud of the confederacy, traitors that seceded from the United States and declared war on and killed Americans, yet they have a problem with some guy kneeling to silently protest the treatment of Blacks?
His efforts and my feedback were for naught. His mother insisted on reading his email response and begged him not to send it. She felt it would cause too much pain in the family. His attempt to speak his truth and stand up for his daughter was effectively shut down.
I admit that when Colin Kaepernick first took a knee, sending the country in an uproar, I barely paid attention. I do not like football, never watch it, not even the Superbowl, and blew it off as sports-related drama. Someone, I cannot remember who, asked me once how I felt about it and I shrugged. It didn’t matter to me either way. Stand, take a knee, whatever. Just because I stand for the National Anthem, and place a hand over my heart, doesn’t mean everyone has to. My grandfather served in WWII, my father and a brother also served, so this is important to me. I am not personally offended by people who choose differently. I don’t know their story.
My brother’s text and subsequent emails forced me out of indifference. I asked myself, what would drive me to the point that I would protest the flag of my country?
The very fact that I shrugged and thought, whatever, is a privilege most Black Americans don’t have. I realized I have a responsibility to understand. I Googled, Why do NFL players take a knee? I learned that taking a knee has a long history in America’s Civil Rights history. That players used to be in the locker room during the Anthem, until the United States Department of Defense started giving the NFL lots of money to promote patriotism.
Each of us views life and its many facets through the lens of our own experience. It is human nature to do so. Some of us, however, are so fixed in our mindsets that we cannot or will not see another’s perspective. Being in black or white, right or wrong, is simpler, cleaner, affirming. Gray matters get messy and murky. They force us to examine things that are complicated and uncomfortable. Yet gray is the space where learning and growth, and new ways of seeing and being, take place, if we are willing to go there.