Yesterday, the National Women’s Soccer League returned to play. It featured two thrilling games. And yet all the discourse has focused on what took place before the games. In empty stadiums, the national anthem was played. The vast majority of players kneeled. But not all.
We have not heard from those who chose to stand, and cannot know what was in their hearts. But the problem with collective performances of symbolic acts is: individual intentions matter far less than the social context in which those actions take place.
In the United States of America, in June 2020, standing for the national anthem can only be a rebuke to those who march and fight and die for the sake of Black life. As a symbolic representation of America itself, it cannot help but take on the characteristic features of our political moment. So while anthem celebrations carry many potential meanings, in this specific moment the choice to stand requires taking a position on the legitimacy of this protest.
To understand why this is true, it’s worth delving into the function of symbols, particularly symbols of national unity.
What is a national anthem for? And who does it serve?
An anthem by its definition is celebratory. It seeks to tell a story that links past to present and unifies those who stand underneath its banner. The anthem asks its listener to celebrate the core features of the nation that make it worthy of our collective devotion.
But what are we being asked to celebrate? The ideals alone, divorced of context? In the American case, can we really separate the principle that ‘all are created equal’ from their historical articulation by slave-owners, ethnic cleansers, segregationists? Can we really celebrate America as a nation when virulent racism still guides so much of our public policy, and still infuses the lives of its citizens?
Consider further: the anthem is regularly described as inextricably linked to support for the troops. But why is this? Is the military such a core feature of American values that supporting one is equivalent to supporting the other? And when ‘the military’ is honored through playing the anthem, is this the same military that kills civilians in Afghanistan and Yemen? Is this the military of William Calley and Abu Ghraib and Wounded Knee?
Presumably, no one holding their hand over their heart at the playing of the anthem is actively thinking about the massacre of American Indian nations. In their mind, the military is a protector of freedom, a force that preserves all that is good in the world against those who would threaten it. The terrible things listed above are now understood as mistakes, aberrations.
The problem is that in their times, many of these atrocities were not understood as mistakes. Indian removal and extermination was official U.S. policy, and widely celebrated as necessary. I live in Brownsville, Texas, which is part of the USA only because the Polk administration waged a war of aggression against Mexico, in service of slave-owning whites.
Across its history, America was founded in fire and blood and death. This does not make it unique. Every nation’s founding story is written in the ashes of those who were exterminated to make way for that which followed. This story is then retrofitted afterward to make it palatable to contemporary social mores. One way this is achieved: through the collective performance of symbolic acts, such as the playing of the national anthem.
For this reason, playing the anthem is not simply a neutral statement of what is good about America. It is always an active political force in our world, which binds some communities together in new ways, but only by excluding others from that process.
The anthem carries many meanings. The question is which we choose to prioritize in this moment
My point here is not to say that the anthem is bad, or that those who stand for it are engaged in an act of evil. That argument could be made, but I think it’s far more important to recognize that any singular theory about the ‘meaning’ of the anthem is fatally flawed. The anthem is never simply one thing because no symbol ever means exclusively one thing. They include a whole host of meanings wrapped together, whose effect depends a great deal on context and the relationships among those who hear it. We are all participants in that process of meaning-making, and we have agency to shape its effect. But no single person controls the meaning of the symbols they deploy.
Those committed to racial justice have identified this moment of powerful collective symbolism as an opportunity to intervene in that process. They have sought to disrupt the smooth translation (‘anthem = flag = good’) and to assert a more complicated set of values. Specifically, they see this as a chance to highlight racial injustice and the way our country continues to actively devalue Black lives.
In doing so, they have not engaged in a protest of the anthem, but have sought to change the meaning of the collective symbolic performance, to demand that we attend to the bad rather than the good. Importantly, this protest is deeply respectful in its form. One could ‘protest’ the anthem by blaring a bullhorn, or by setting a flag on fire. No one is choosing to do these things. Instead, they kneel silently.
This is an invitation as well as a challenge. Can those who exclusively see the anthem as a symbol of goodness accept and understand that it also carries these other darker meanings? Can they – in this moment – recognize the experiences of others as valid, as equally deserving of affirmation?
Kneeling is an act of solidarity that is fully compatible with a patriotic reading of the anthem
Today, the symbolic range of the anthem has expanded significantly. Many still wish to believe that it only means what (to them) it has always meant. But none of us controls the meaning of the symbols we engage. Choosing to stand for the anthem right now is a choice to dismiss those other meanings, to deny that they even have a valid place at the table. Standing for the anthem today is not simply an act of allegiance to the ideals of America. It can’t be that, because we have collectively opened the door to other meanings.
The question is therefore posed: can we collectively acknowledge the ever-present trauma experienced by Black lives in America? Are we willing to loosen our firm grip on the meaning of this symbolic event? Doing so does not require giving up on the positive symbolism of the anthem—those resonances will still overwhelmingly dominate our collective performances of the act. But it does require sacrificing the right to exclusively tell that story.
If you believe those other values are unimportant, then by all means stand. But if you believe that these voices deserve to be heard, that your Black friends and colleagues deserve to be valued, it’s worth considering whether you can make a small sacrifice and affirm the new meanings that have opened themselves, rather than fighting them. This would not require abandoning the old associations, nor would it require committing to kneel from now on. It could simply mean saying “I've always been proud to stand for the anthem, and I plan to stand again in the future. But today I needed to support my teammates and the fight for justice. I hope everyone can understand and respect that.”
In my opinion, this act of solidarity would honor, not devalue, the values often ascribed to the anthem. If that’s not a sacrifice that fits within your version of patriotism, it’s worth asking yourself some serious questions about what exactly it is that you’re so patriotic for.
Going forward, I hope that this discussion inspires the league—and sports leagues in general—to step away from universal anthem-playing in domestic competitions. But if they insist on continuing to incorporate a performance of symbolic nationalism, I hope that the participants find the empathy needed to accept ceding control over the meaning of this act, if only for a little while.