Taking a deep breath, I knelt in the center of the soccer field, feeling the perfectly manicured grass beneath me. In front and behind me, I knew some of my teammates were doing the same as notes of the United States national anthem began to fill the air. It was the beginning of fall, the sun still hot from the vestiges of summer, and the first league game of my senior season of collegiate soccer as one of the team’s captains. A certain stillness seemed to thicken in the air as my heart beat nervously, until a strangled voice began shouting words that I attempted to tune out; it was a leaden sound, meant to barrage us with his disapproval. I later learned this was one of my teammates’ father, belting out the anthem as he watched in fury on the sidelines, a kind of counter protest to our protest.

As we knelt and as the orchestral recording blasted on, I thought of my parents; I thought of how they had spontaneously dropped off a beautiful bouquet of flowers before this game, before they knew what we were planning to do, as their nonverbal way of saying, “Congratulations on making it to your last season. We’re so proud of you.” Guilt flooded my heart, knowing what I was going to do in the coming hours, and how I knew they would react.

This was our platform, small as it was, and we felt compelled to continue the movement.

I didn’t plan on telling my parents that some of my teammates and I were going to kneel during the national anthem this season as a way of showing solidarity with other black athletes who had set the example, sensing that, at the very least, they would disapprove. I sent them a quick text that moment, thanking them for the flowers, telling them our intentions, and then quickly put my phone in my bag so I wouldn’t have to see their reaction before the game. I knew that any public sign of dissent would not be tolerated, just as any questioning of my father’s authority in our household while I was growing up was immediately crushed. Yet, I knew this was something that we needed to do. New headlines with new victims of police brutality seemed to be popping up every day. New live videos recording brutal executions of black men and women kept showing up in my feed. Colin Kaepernick had started a movement, and Megan Rapinoe had brought it to the world of women’s soccer. This was our platform, small as it was, and we felt compelled to continue the movement.

I didn’t know the extent of their anger until after the game. My father had grown up in a missionary family, and they lived all over the world in extreme poverty. My halmeoni would tell my dad and his brothers that they were going to fast for three days instead of telling them that there simply wasn’t anything to eat. Coming to America when he was 18, my dad started at the University of California Riverside. He couldn’t walk well from having polio as a child, did not speak any English, and was very poor. Through hard work and determination, my dad graduated and gradually built a comfortable life for himself and his family, vowing that his children would never know the pain of hunger like he did.

That’s why, when my dad was screaming at me in the car after the game, “This country gave me everything! How could you do something so disrespectful! If you don’t like it here, try going to a different country and see how you like it!” a part of me understood his outrage. I’ll never be able to truly know the suffering and the sacrifices that my dad endured, but I certainly saw his point of view. I knew that when he was yelling at me to go to another country that he was thinking of his childhood, and the suffering that he experienced and witnessed in other nations. I tried to explain why I chose to kneel, but tears constricted my throat. Every logical and ethical reason seemed to wither on my tongue as he looked scathingly at me. He eventually said, “I can’t stand to see you like this. I won’t come to any more of your games. Not while you do this foolish thing,” and promptly kicked me out of the car after dropping me off at my house.

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Although I was partly resigned to the fact that my dad was entitled to his choice, my heart broke for the ways this decision hurt him. After 12 years of playing competitive soccer, I also wanted my dad to be there for my last games; without his support, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play at this level, let alone attend college. I know what kind of sacrifices my parents made in order for me to pursue this passion of mine, and how, to them, this felt like I was spitting in their faces. Not knowing what to do, I texted my brother for advice. While we hadn’t grown up being close, he was the only one who would understand what our parents are like, and it was his words that I needed the most. In a sense, the emotional abuse that our father had put us through tied us together, no matter how different we had grown up to be. His response floored me and shattered my heart even more: “If this is something you truly believe in, you have a moral obligation to follow through and commit to your actions, no matter what anyone says.”

My housemates and fellow teammates found me sobbing in my room after reading that text from my brother. I didn’t know how how to repair my relationship with my dad without compromising my values. There would be no easy way out, no way to fudge my beliefs to accomodate my dad’s desire to flatten me down so I wouldn’t stand out. My teammates comforted me as some of them were also struggling with their parents over their decision, while others — whose parents were fully supportive — encouraged us the best they could. My mom also texted me, saying that she was proud of me for taking a stand for my beliefs, but she and I both knew that my dad’s voice and decisions overwhelmed that of the rest of the family’s.

I was kneeling so that no laws like that could ever be put in place again.

It was at this impasse that I decided to write my dad a letter. If he wouldn’t listen in person, maybe he would relent and read something I had written, I thought. In the letter, I explained that I had chosen to kneel to protest police brutality against black people, and to recognize that not everyone in this country has the same amount of freedom as everyone else. I tried to convey that although slavery and the civil rights movement of the 1960’s is over, systemic racism continues to influence people’s lives today — for some, in ways that threaten their lives and general wellbeing. I wrote about how black people were the ones who protested and dismantled unjust immigration laws that allowed my dad and his family to immigrate to the United States in the first place, and that I was kneeling so that no laws like that could ever be put in place again.

I explained that this gesture was not meant to disrespect veterans or those who are currently serving. I am filled with nothing but respect and gratitude for their sacrifices. I wrote that I was aware of what a privilege it is to be an American citizen, and that I’m thankful to those who have enabled me to live my life as freely as I do, including my dad. But, I argued, it is possible to love this country and be critical of it at the same time. I wrote that I want America to stand for justice and freedom for all, no matter what skin color a person might have, and how we must continue to push for social change, because the systems that are in place today continue to privilege white people over minorities.

I wrote that as a Christian, I follow the person of Jesus who aligned himself with the oppressed and stigmatized — with women, widows, orphans, the poor, foreigners, and the like — and who actively dismantled systems of injustice when he encountered them. And lastly, I told my dad that I loved him and wanted him to be at my games. I let him know he could come after the anthem was finished playing if he still didn’t want to see me kneel, since I wasn’t going to stop.

I wrote that I want America to stand for justice and freedom for all, no matter what skin color a person might have

According to my mom, my dad initially refused to read the letter I had written him. But, eventually, he relented, and while he still thought what I was doing was stupid, he told my coach that he was proud of me for using my voice and standing firm to my beliefs. When he saw that I was trying to communicate with him, and how deeply I had thought everything through, it made him respect my decision. In a somewhat twisted sense of dad humor, he also got me American flag-themed socks and jokingly told me that I had to wear them 24/7 in order for him to keep coming to my games. My teammates and I kneeled for every game the rest of the season.

When I knew this issue was something I felt strongly about, I also knew that it would lead to a fight with my parents. The time during this fight was extremely unpleasant — I, along with other teammates whose parents disapproved, were in extreme emotional turmoil. But compared to what we were standing for, our situation in no way compared to the both the physical and psychological damage and danger some people in this country endure day to day.

As I navigate what it means to serve my parents, in both a biblical and cultural sense, I know that in the end I serve a higher realm of authority — one apart from my dad’s and of this nation. While serving one’s parents can look like obedience, in this case, serving my parents meant that I held firm to my beliefs, despite what they initially thought. Bending to their will would have only caused further resentment, which would have inevitably led to a splintering of our relationship later on. Choosing to act on my convictions didn’t mean I had to leave my parents behind; instead, I pursued them through conversation and understanding. Over any conflict with my parents — of which I know there will be more to come — I’ll continue to pray for empathy, mercy, and courage.

While serving one’s parents can look like obedience, in this case, serving my parents meant that I held firm to my beliefs, despite what they initially thought.

  • Naomi (she/her/hers) graduated with a degree in English from Whitman College. She now works in corporate communications and is passionate about storytelling, social justice, and how the two intersect. She spends her free time hiking, watching kid's cartoons, and exploring different matcha desserts around Seattle. Check out more of Naomi's work and thoughts at @naomijoylee (Instagram) @nomijlee (Twitter)