The United States of America: a land of freedom and a beacon of hope to the world, champions of liberty and justice for all. These are the grand values for which our nation claims to stand, yet with the simple act of taking a knee, Colin Kaepernick called them all into question. Catalyzed by controversial instances of black death at the hands of police, he used his powerful platform as an NFL player to call attention to the fatal effects of racial bias in law enforcement. However, the message behind Kaepernick’s stance—or perhaps, lack thereof—has been buried beneath a furious flurry of presidential tweets, inciting outrage mostly at his method of protest. The flag, our sacred stars and stripes, is off-limits, say Trump and much of white America, and people are really mad

People are mad because apparently attacking our flag is attacking our veterans, who sacrifice everything to protect our freedoms, including the freedom to protest peacefully. But America has a history of neglecting its veterans, and the average American probably couldn’t even tell you when Veteran’s Day is (it’s November 11th), so the idea that Americans are suddenly enraged isn’t terribly convincing. No, in reality, people are mad because with his protest, Colin Kaepernick committed a cardinal sin: he made white people uncomfortable.

Time and time again, movements of black agency like Kaepernick’s have been co-opted. The rewriting and at times erasure of racial history have occurred repeatedly: Rosa Parks was a tired old lady, Martin Luther King loved everyone and was saintly in his non-violence, Jackie Robinson fixed baseball, and Paul Robeson? Never heard of him. Each of these figures has been simplified to the parts of them that are most palatable to the American public and the white dominant group. Movements of black agency have been labelled “disruptive” because they challenge the social norm of white supremacy and call attention to the darkest parts of our history. White America has touted values of equality and justice with an in-your-face, flag-on-the-lawn kind of nationalism all while black folks have been treated as second-class citizens and withstood egregious abuse, but shh, don’t say it too loud, or you’ll wake us from this elaborate dream of American exceptionalism. 

In America, the celebrated “good negro” does not offend or challenge, but comforts white society. Ever the gentleman, he accepts his position and is “grateful” for any opportunities that come his way. He smashes heads dutifully every Sunday, but doesn’t try to “run the prison,” as goes Bob McNair’s totally non-literal metaphor. In the words of Jackie Robinson, the man contractually obligated to fulfill this role, the “good negro” is a “patient black freak.” The loud blacks, on the other hand, the “bad actors” and Colin Kaepernicks of the world, unapologetically offend. With their voice, they disrupt our nation’s comfortable equilibrium of ignorance and force us to question the values we claim to stand for as a nation. And whites aren’t used to being uncomfortable, so yeah, people get mad. 

The ousting of Kaepernick from the NFL is a desperate attempt to return to a comfortable, ignorant equilibrium, but his actions have sparked a conversation that the owners, fans, sponsors, and even Trump haven’t been able to silence. The time has come for Americans—including myself—to get uncomfortable and face racial issues. As an avid Patriots fan (read: winner), I am now forced to question if I can continue to give my blind support to the team I grew up loving. Brady and Belichick are the greatest of all time, yes, so I tried to overlook their reported support for Trump, but if owner Robert Kraft participated in a gentleman’s agreement to ostracize Kaepernick, the organization’s heart may prove too dark. On a larger scale, we can no longer refrain from challenging white comfort. Of course, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” is soothing in its simplicity, even if the founders really meant, “…and black men are three-fifths of a white man and women are not men at all.” Since 1776, we’ve clutched our grand values and red-white-and-blue, burgers-on-the-barbecue brand of patriotism like a child does a security blanket. But it’s bedtime, America, and reducing Kaepernick’s protest to just the flag is not a night light sufficient enough to keep us from facing the darkness. No matter how many movements are co-opted, eventually, American society will have to confront the monster under the bed. And eventually, it will find that it was the monster all along.