Interpreting Symbols

I celebrated my birthday last month, and along with it, had to renew my drivers’ license.  I always laugh at the sign test.  I can’t quite understand why they take the words out of the signs.  I never come across a stop sign that doesn’t have the word stop in the middle.  Regardless, a big, red octagon means stop.  We have ascribed meaning to this particular color and shape.


We have lots of other symbols as well:  recycle, no smoking, restrooms, etc.  Some symbols make total sense, for example, a picture of a trash can to indicate there is a place to through trash away.  However, three green arrows in a triangle is a little more abstract.  How did we decide this means recycle?

Some symbols have the same meaning in different parts of our country and world.  In most places, for example, a red heart means love.  However, I’m not sure there are any truly universal symbols.  If someone grew up in a remote, isolated location I’m not sure a heart, a big, red octagon, or even an arrow pointing in a certain direction would hold any meaning.  We have ascribed meaning to these things based on a common experience and understanding.

What happens when multiple meanings are ascribed to the same symbol, or when the experience of one person or group doesn’t fit with the meaning another group is trying to ascribe?  For example, the cross is, for Christians today, a symbol of resurrection and hope.  In another time and place, wearing a cross necklace would have been akin to wearing a little electric chair around one’s neck.

Colin Kaepernick, an NFL player with the San Francisco 49ers, started a controversial movement when he chose to kneel during the National Anthem.  In the last five weeks, dozens of professional athletes and teams–as well as amateur ones–have taken a knee, raised a fist, or remained seated during the National Anthem.  I understand the perspective of those who find this disrespectful.  For many in the United States, the National Anthem is a symbol of freedom and–especially for those who have or have had family in the military–a symbol of those who gave their lives fighting for those freedoms.

And I understand (as well as my white, educated self can understand) those who kneel, raise a fist, or don’t stand.  If they put their hand over their heart and sing the anthem they are professing receipt of freedoms they have not received.

Maybe they are intending to disrespect the lives of those who fought and died.  I haven’t asked.  But maybe, in a way, they are respecting those lives, insisting on the fullness of the freedoms for which they fought.

Because my skin is white, I don’t worry if I get pulled over, or if my dad or brothers get pulled over.  Because my skin is white, I probably wouldn’t get arrested for shoplifting if I opened my drink while I was shopping intending to pay at the checkout.  Because my skin is white, my family did not face difficulty purchasing a home in whatever neighborhood we desired, in a school district that would prepare me well for whatever further education I would want to pursue.  Because my skin is white, it’s assumed I am educated.  Because my skin is white, I can run to the store in grungy sweats and not be stereotyped.

I am grateful for these freedoms, believing this should be the experience of everyone.  But it’s not.  I sometimes wish I could give them up to be in solidarity with people whose skin doesn’t look like mine.  But I can’t be not white.  I can’t uneducated myself.

I can, however, work to understand and change the systems that keep people oppressed.

Racial conversations and actions always make me uneasy because I don’t want to say the wrong thing or offend someone unintentionally.  I’m already asking myself what I’ll do the next time I’m at a sporting event and the National Anthem is played.  My gut is that I’ll stay seated.  I have to agree that the freedoms for which our country stands have not been fully realized.  I hope my black sisters and brothers will see my action as commitment to a shared journey, and I hope they’ll help me understand my role in what the Sisters of St. Joseph call the mission of unifying love.


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