Symbolic Movements Need Active Participation

Ariana Enzerink, Contributing Writer

There’s been a lot of buzz within the Oberlin College athletics community recently about the seemingly unanimous, teamwide decision for the Oberlin College varsity field hockey team to kneel during the national anthem, following the highly publicized lead of Colin Kaepernick and other Black athletes protesting police violence. As a member of the team, which I’m proud to say is comprised of passionate, vocal and hardworking young women, this act of protest motivated me to think more about the ways individuals participate in allyship and activism.

To me, the power of being a part of a symbolic movement comes from understanding the issue and actively making the informed choice to join the larger, united group protesting the problem. But unfortunately, these movements often pan out in a way so that a few passionate people pressure others to be part of a group, rather than giving their peers time to make the decision on their own. This pressure may not be direct or intended, but it can result when fervent individuals try to change the world for the better. This is the feeling I’ve been grappling with ever since the idea of kneeling was brought up shortly before we were called to publicly demonstrate our support. While I fully agree that police violence against people of color is a problem in our society, in the moment I felt as if my knowledge of the issue was limited so that I couldn’t meaningfully participate in the particular act of protest. I believe that there is a powerful social force at play when an individual is singled out for not following suit in any aspect of life. It’s a difference that is clearly apparent when you’re standing in the middle of the field right before the start of a varsity intercollegiate match, surrounded by field hockey teammates who are all kneeling, some of whom are kneeling because they personally believe in the message, others simply because they are supporting their teammates who feel passionately about the issue.

There’s a difference in the two types of support. Both are important and powerful representations of allyship and support, but they are fundamentally different. That difference is not apparent in a display of kneeling where it looks like everyone is down on one knee for the same reason. So how can we participate in acts of solidarity that do not condemn those who don’t know enough to fully commit? Education seems like the best place to start. However, these types of movements come and go so fast in our reactive and fast-paced society that there isn’t always the luxury of time for people to really think and process. There’s a trend of Oberlin students and many others getting behind a symbolic movement without having enough information to make a real decision because their peers are so vocal and quick to judge those who don’t immediately participate. Just partaking in the symbolic act isn’t enough to create any real change, so why is it important to rally people to do the same if they’re acting in blind submission — doesn’t that weaken the validity of the cause? While symbolic movements can be a powerful vehicle for social change, the stakes are so different for every individual that it’s difficult to come to a consensus of how to approach these situations. I truly believe that open communication and the desire to teach rather than coerce others into action is vital to creating meaningful change.