Donald Trump’s frothing critique of Colin Kaepernick and the players, coaches, and teammates who have come to his side has garnered many revelatory reactions. Some of these responses tell us more about ourselves as Americans than do Trump’s initial description of any athlete who chooses to protest systemic racism and police brutality as being a “son of a bitch.” One critical lesson is how some view free speech as a privilege conferred upon a lonely few. Trump’s backers claim that these players are pampered millionaires with no right to squawk; that they are disrespecting the military; that athletes, like talk show hosts, should stay in their lanes and restrict themselves to amusing us. Most intriguingly, some have said that black players ought to protest exclusively in ways white football fans approve of. The author John Pavlovitz has explicitly named this latter critique “the arrogant heart of privilege.” As he put it, this defines that core of white privilege: “being the beneficiaries of systematic injustice, and then wanting to make the rules for the marginalized in how they should speak into that injustice.”
This is an incredibly astute and important observation, but in the past few days another more sinister theme has emerged in the attack on professional athletes and their acts of silent protest. It’s a second coming of Trump’s ongoing war on truth, except in this iteration, the attack is on the truths of others. No longer content to simply lie about things, this White House wants to tell you what other people actually mean when they speak. Nobody better captured this mentality than Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. During Monday’s White House press briefing, Sanders was asked why the president wouldn’t acknowledge that players who knelt during the national anthem were doing so to protest racism and police brutality. Questioned about Trump’s claim that “the issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Sanders responded, “I think the focus has long since changed.” She amplified that unsupported claim by saying that the players were protesting incorrectly to begin with. “I think if the debate is really, for them, about police brutality, they should probably protest the officers on the field that are protecting them instead of the American flag,” she offered.
So, when Colin Kaepernick explicitly says time and time and time again that he is protesting police brutality, he is wrong. And when another player, Eric Reid, said on Monday that players are taking a knee expressly not to protest the flag or the military, but to protest the “incredible number of unarmed black people being killed by the police,” he is also wrong. What Sanders and Trump are saying here exemplifies one of the most grotesque aspects of unchecked privilege. It transcends even patronizing lectures about how black men should protest in such a way as to avoid offending white people. This is an attempt to dictate—with the threat of job loss—the very ability of some black men to have and maintain control over their own speech. What the president and Sanders are claiming is that they are better situated than the actual speakers to understand what those speakers are saying. That takes us from privilege to silencing, and it’s not a move that should go unremarked.
This is an old trick, by the way. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, I wrote about critics who insisted upon telling protesters holding up actual physical signs that they didn’t understand what their own signs meant. To strip away the actual meaning of another speaker’s words, to insist—without evidence of any sort—that the speaker talking about police brutality is in fact protesting soldiers, flags, and veterans is not just another cruel attack on reality itself: It’s the very height of privilege.
If there is still some possibility that Americans as a group can figure out how to think about free speech, sports, systemic racial disparities in the justice system, and life generally as experienced by people of color in the United States in 2017, it will require white people to actually listen to those people of color as they describe their experiences. That involves both listening carefully and also not imputing false statements to others. In addressing his own conflicted feelings about the protests this week, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman and Afghanistan war veteran Alejandro Villanueva said it best:
I have learned that I don’t know what it’s like to be from Dade County, I don’t know what it’s like to be from Lakeland, I can’t tell you that I know what my teammates have gone through. So I’m not going to pretend that I have the righteous sort of voice to tell you that you should stand up for the national anthem.
This is precisely why the First Amendment matters so much: It requires someone to speak, and someone else to listen. Those simple exchanges historically have been meant to lead us to a mutual understanding of reality, one which has recently gone by the wayside. But it’s one thing to distort your own reality. It’s quite another to trammel someone else’s.
The president and Sarah Huckabee Sanders have the double luxury of being able to claim to know what NFL players really mean by their protests, and also being able to invent fake after-the-fact rationales with which to cover their own false and racially inflammatory statements. Colin Kaepernick doesn’t have that luxury. He doesn’t—at this moment—even have a job. If we are truly interested in anything that resembles truth seeking anymore, instead of allowing this controversy to be sidetracked by those who would put false words in a protester’s mouth, let’s give him the dignity of accepting at face value the real words and intentions he claims for himself.