On #TakeAKnee: Can We Talk about the Why?
I recently read a piece highlighting the basic questions that a journalist must answer: What? When? Where? Who? How? and Why? I am writing in the context of the Las Vegas massacre, when Stephen Paddock killed over 50 people, injuring over 400.
We all knew the answers to the context questions in short order: Who did it, when did he do it, where did he do it, how did he do it. But as the piece pointed out, what we all really want to know, what we are still waiting to know, is why did he do it?
“Why” is the most impactful question you can ask, because unlike the other questions which provide mostly context, the “why” can provide deeper insight and understanding. The answer to “why” allows us to really make sense of what happened.
As an educator, I urge my students to set aside the context questions – the whens, wheres, whos – and think about the whys. The context questions are usually easy to answer, and we are not here to answer the easy questions. So when we discuss #TakeAKnee, I ask them to do just that.
The nation, particularly those who are opposed to #TakeAKnee but even those who express their support, is obsessed with the context questions. We want to talk about who, and that gets us evaluating Colin Kaepernick’s life and career.
We want to talk about where, and that has us talking about NFL games and protesting “on the job.”
We want to talk about when, and that brings up conversation about our relationship with the national anthem.
We want to talk about how, and that takes us into arguing about proper behavior during patriotic displays. These are all questions that deserve some attention, but not nearly as much as they are being given. They are just context questions, they take us nowhere, and they ultimately distract us from the more pressing question.
The one question that many keep sidestepping is the “why.” Why are they kneeling?
The answer, as we all ought to know (because Kaepernick himself explained why), is systemic racism and police brutality against people of color. Ouch.
That “why” took us right into a huge wound in our society that we are afraid to touch. Perhaps that is the reason for avoiding this “why” in the first place. We know the answer hurts, and it is much easier to just stick to the context questions.
But the “why” question is so important exactly because its answer challenges us, because its answer forces us to think about the work we have left to do if we want to truly live the ideals we espouse, because its answer demands that we listen to the voices of the oppressed.
We do not shy away from the “why” when we feel that the answer will not demand anything from us, like when we ask why Stephen Paddock committed mass murder in Las Vegas.
Whatever the answer is, we feel confident that it will not demand anything from us, that we can in the end call this an isolated incident perpetrated by a disturbed man, and we can sadly shake our heads and move on (the conversation over how we perceive white male violence is one for another time).
But the answer to why NFL players are kneeling during the national anthem does not leave us off the hook.
Calling out systemic racism puts responsibility on all of us, so are we instead choosing to settle on the wheres, whens, and whos? Are we choosing to distract ourselves from the real issue – the “why”? Just as I implore my students as an educator, I implore everybody as a passionate fellow citizen: rise to the challenge, rise to the “why.”
Appreciate the pain in the answer, but do not run away from the answer. By simply letting yourself think about the why, you have already begun to respect the voices of the oppressed who are represented in these protests. Asking “why” is critical to moving discourse forward and enabling progress towards our societal ideals.
Amber Crowell is an assistant professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno. Connect with her at email@example.com.