A race experience

by Gautam Raja

“Anyone want any Miami Dolphins merchandise? I have houseful of the stuff to give away.”

I know nothing about sports, so assumed our instructor’s favourite team had just lost a game. “Do you understand what happened? I don’t. I’m giving it all away—its going for free.”

Someone in the otherwise silent room laughed and said, “No way”.

“This would never happen in NASCAR,” said the instructor.

The one vocal person in the room made a “hear hear” type comment, and the realisation glinted. This wasn’t about game results, it was about “take a knee”; NFL athletes refusing to stand for the American national anthem.

“And this happened in England! We’re showing our weakness abroad.”

My wife was at a race experience that was a birthday gift from close friends. I was there as spectator, and we thanked our friends several times over the day, not just because she got to rocket an Indy-500-style car for several laps around an actual circuit, but because it pulled us out of the house on a Sunday, to do something we’d normally never have considered.

But class hadn’t begun well. As I realised what the instructor was referring to, I said to my wife, “Really? We’re talking about this here?” The stranger next to me gave me a sympathetic smile. I readied to shout out a suggestion that we stick to racing this morning, but either the instructor read the room (he was a long way from Texas), or had run out of fuel, and he moved on to the business at hand.

Showing weakness abroad? On the contrary, considering how jingoistic the US is, I think these players showed tremendous strength. It takes courage to do something that makes a stadium boo at you, something that may adversely affect your career, that exposes you to online and live harassment, and might even put you in physical danger.

A flag and anthem are symbols, and presumably immutable. What the symbol stands for, however, depends on the person viewing it. National symbols aim to represent big truths, universal ideals. It’s easy to belittle someone who doesn’t get to their feet for their national anthem, but what if they’re holding their country to a higher standard? What if, to them, their nation doesn’t match the glorious truths contained in flag and anthem, and are demanding that it should?

When you hold a country (or even a person) accountable for their actions and choices, you are giving them the chance to be everything they can be. In toxic systems, whether societies, offices, or families, we’re taught to not question, to abide by the code of shame. Don’t question institutional racism. Don’t tell the abusive boss to stop insulting employees. Don’t tell the tantrum-throwing family member that’s not how adults ask for compliance. Every system has its flags and anthems, the symbols you are not allowed to question without being called a traitor.

When an athlete is accused of disrespect, or anti-national behaviour, the underlying message is that it’s easy to do what they’re doing, and that cleaving to majority principles requires great depth of character. In truth, questioning and pushing back against a toxic system (or least a system a person believes is toxic) demands huge personal resources, not just to swim upstream, but to deal with the outcome if the system isn’t ready for change; to deal with being a villain for trying to do the right thing.

I would be proud to take that Miami Dolphins merchandise off that instuctor, and by not telling him that, I didn’t find the courage to #takeaknee in that room.

First published in Gulf News, October 10, 2017