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Kimberly Tolson confronts racism in the family.

Published onDec 04, 2019

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

—Colin Kaepernick

Former NFL player and U.S. military veteran Nate Boyer told Colin Kaepernick that kneeling as a protest would show more respect to former and current military members than sitting on the bench.


Martin Luther King, Jr., Black American, delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed labor discrimination. Malcolm X, Black American, was assassinated on February 21, 1965, receiving a total of 21 gunshot wounds. In 1965, the federal government enacted The Voting Rights Act, legislation that outlawed racial discrimination at the voting booths. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., Black American, was assassinated. Just seven days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson, White American, signed into law The Civil Rights Act of 1968, which protects those against intimidation and violence based in racial discrimination.

On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, Black American, was assassinated at point-blank range by two Chicago police officers. That same year, my white parents graduated from high school, got married at twenty, and enrolled at a small, Baptist college in the South, most likely unaware of the racial tensions that many in their own state of Arkansas endured. Or, if not unaware, my white parents were largely unaffected by the tide of racial discrimination. My father was drafted in 1972, so instead of becoming a foot soldier, he enlisted in the Air Force as an officer and devoted twenty years to the United States military. At my white grandfather’s funeral, he scoffed at the folded flag my white mother clutched. He told me he refused a military funeral. They can go to hell, he said under his breath. I’m done.

On September 1, 2016, Colin Kaepernick, Black American, kneeled during the National Anthem in a preseason game for the San Francisco 49ers. His teammate Eric Reid, Black American, kneeled beside him. That same day, in a different football game, Seattle Seahawks’ Jeremy Lane, Black American, sat on the bench during the National Anthem. Days later, Megan Rapinoe, gay American, kneeled at a National Women’s Soccer League match during the National Anthem. Eight days after Colin Kaepernick first kneeled, Denver Broncos’ Brandon Marshall, Black American, kneeled during the National Anthem. On September 11, 2016, four Miami Dolphins players kneeled during the National Anthem: Arian Foster, Black American; Michael Thomas, Black American; Kenny Stills, Black American; Jelani Jenkins, Black American. The same night, the entire Seattle Seahawks team linked arms as did the Kansas City Chiefs team. Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneeled during the National Anthem on September 11, and two of their teammates, Eli Harold, Black American, and Antoine Bethea, Black American, held their fists in the air. Two players from the opposing team, the Rams, held their fists in the air: Robert Quinn, Black American, and Kenny Britt, Black American. Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the National Anthem for every 49ers game in the 2016 season. 

Colin Kaepernick, Black American, lost his job because he kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem. Opting out of his contract in early 2017 as opposed to being cut by his team, he was blackballed by the NFL. Later in the year, he filed a grievance against the NFL, accusing owners of colluding to keep him out of the league. In 2019, the NLF paid Colin Kaepernick an undisclosed amount in exchange for his silence. On the three-year anniversary of his kneeling, he tweeted in support of those who refuse to be silent in the face of systemic racism.

Eric Reid, Black American, nearly lost the chance to play football again because he kneeled during the National Anthem. He was passed over for months during the 2017 free-agent season but was finally drafted by the Carolina Panthers for a one-year contract. In Reid’s first game with the Panthers, he kneeled during the National Anthem. Brandon Marshall, Black American, lost contracts with CenturyLink and a Colorado credit union, both companies citing his kneeling as the reason. In solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, Rihanna, Black American, turned down an invitation to perform at the 2020 Super Bowl Halftime Show saying, “I just couldn’t be a sellout.”

U.S. Soccer admonished Megan Rapinoe’s kneeling, as did the public. American Soccer Now held an online poll that asked if Megan Rapinoe, gay American, should even be allowed to play soccer for the United States due to her kneeling during the National Anthem. Months after she kneeled, U.S. Soccer passed a policy that requiring all players to stand during the National Anthem.

My white parents’ new home flies the American flag, a red, white and blue reminder of what country they proudly live in and fight for: America. For the past thirty years, my white father has taken advantage of everything retired military life has to offer: free healthcare, more affordable food, at-cost travel and nationwide discounts. He’s become more of a patriot after his service than during active duty. And now he flies the American flag in his dead-end cul-de-sac.

In fall of 2016, 63 percent of White Americans disapproved of kneeling and 74 percent of Black Americans approved of kneeling. The poll also revealed that the older the American, the less likely they were to approve of kneeling. Seventy-seven (77%) of NFL viewers are White Americans. Every single NFL team owner is a White American. Another set of polls revealed that 72 percent of Americans disagreed with Kaepernick’s kneeling, calling his actions “unpatriotic,” and 61 percent of Americans didn’t support his reasons for kneeling.

About the Americans kneeling during the National Anthem, the President of the United States said, “Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” The President described the players’ actions as “disgraceful.” He called them “sons of bitches.” In 2018, two years after the kneeling, 53 percent of Americans still thought it was never appropriate to kneel during the National Anthem. A vast majority of those who disagreed were old, White, Republican Americans. My parents are old, White, Republican Americans.

Now, many Americans just hope they can make it through the holidays without ever talking about politics. Many Americans think that talking about political issues increases the hate and the prejudice. More Americans would rather talk about religion with a stranger than politics.

Hundreds of Black men are shot and killed by police each year. Many police officers don’t lose their job or receive criminal punishment. Colin Kaepernick, Black American, kneeled because he was fed up with the unchallenged police brutality, as were many Americans. From Oscar Grant to I can’t breathe, he’d had enough.

Eric Garner, 43-years old, father of six, suffocated by the New York police on July 17, 2014. Michael Brown Jr., 18-years old, fired at 14 times by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer who killed him on August 9, 2014. Laquan McDonald, 17-years old, shot and killed while walking away from a Chicago police officer on October 20, 2014. Tamir Rice, 12-years old, shot and killed by Cleveland police on November 22, 2014. Walter Scott, 50-years old, former U.S. Coast Guardsman, shot five times while fleeing a North Charleston police officer on April 4, 2015. Freddie Gray, 25-years old, arrested and unnecessarily assaulted by Baltimore police officers, resulting in his death on April 12, 2015. Philando Castile, 32-years old, shot seven times by Minnesota police officer while sitting in his car on July 6, 2016. Alton Sterling, 37-years old, shot dead while held to the ground by Baton Rouge police officers on July 5, 2016.  Dennis Plowden, 25-years old, shot and killed by Philadelphia police on December 27, 2017. Stephon Clark, 22-years old, shot at 20 times and killed in his grandmother’s backyard by a Sacramento police officer on March 18, 2018. Rashad Cunningham, 25-years old, fatally shot by Indiana police just 10 seconds after being approached on August 17, 2019.

In 2015, Black men were nearly 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police officers than were white men. By 2016, that statistic rose to four times. Young Black men were nine times more likely to be shot than either of my White, middle-of-America parents.

Now, they are killing black women. 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson, Black American, was shot in her home while playing video games with her nephew.

All I heard from my white parents about it all was that Colin Kaepernick needed to show some respect and stand for the National Anthem. True patriots stand for the flag and our country. It’s just what you do, they lectured me, my White mom absentmindedly placing her hand over her heart. My White dad told me that the young black man who was shot while fleeing in a stolen car deserved it. He said that only guilty people flee the cops and that the police had every right to stop his car in the first place. I told him that there’s never a reason to shoot at someone who is running away. That cops can’t just stop random Black people because they look suspicious. I thought, That’s racist, but I didn’t say it. I wanted to say it, I tried to, but I couldn’t.

I also failed to say, I love you, Dad. We don’t talk about things because we prefer to cling to the bad feelings, the need to be right, like the fact that I haven’t visited my parents for Christmas in fifteen years because the first year I invited my future husband to celebrate with us together, they separated us, forcing us to stay in different rooms. But I don’t want to lose you, I think. More and more Americans cancel their holiday plans to avoid being around those who support the opposing side. I don’t want to be that statistic.

I sit across the table from my mom and dad, both old, Republican Americans, both retirees living in Kansas. A news scroll on the restaurant television reports that a White cop entered a Black man’s apartment, thinking it was hers, and fatally shot Botham Jean, a 26-year old Black American.

Castle Doctrine be damned, I think. My dad refuses to chime in. My mom says that there is never an acceptable reason to kneel or protest during the National Anthem. She refuses to listen to my side. Nothing I say will ever convince her otherwise. It’s personal, she says.

Kimberly Tolston teaches college English at the convergence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers where she also resides with her two dogs and partner. Her essays appear in Sonora Review, 100 Word Story, Crosscurrents and Talking River.


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