sports and race Mesut Özil and the pain of exclusion

Mesut Özil, Colin Kaepernick, Tommie Smith: White majorities in Germany, America and elsewhere often don’t hear, or don’t want to hear, the pained and primal screams of their minorities.

“I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.” That’s how, this week, Mesut Özil, a German soccer star of Turkish extraction, explained why he was quitting the German national soccer squad. It reminded me of something Tommie Smith once said: "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro.”

Tommie Smith is the African-American athlete who won gold at the 1968 Olympics in the 200-meter sprint. Another black American, John Carlos, won bronze. As the two mounted the stand and the Star-Spangled Banner began playing, they silently raised a black-gloved fist in protest.

Smith later wrote that their salute was not to “Black Power” but to “human rights.” But when they got home, whites ostracized them, calling them treasonous and unpatriotic. “Unpatriotic” is what you often hear in America whenever somebody doesn’t behave properly when the anthem is played, by placing the right hand over the heart and singing along.

That’s why Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, caused such outrage in 2016. He began kneeling during the US anthem, to protest police brutality against blacks. Other players emulated him. This caused a backlash (led by Donald Trump) among whites who accused the kneelers of being – wait for it – “unpatriotic.”

I don’t recall Özil ever singing along to the German anthem, even before his clash with the German soccer association this summer. What complex thoughts must have gone through his mind whenever he heard the anthem.

There is, of course, a big difference between Smith and Kaepernick on one side, and Özil on the other. The former felt compelled to protest against the evil of American racism. But the gesture that unfurled Özil’s tragedy was his posing for a photo with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an authoritarian tyrant. Özil says he did it to show “respect for the highest office in the land of my family.” But he should have known it was inappropriate.

Still, the stench of hypocrisy hangs over the phony outrage by many German fans and soccer bureaucrats. Earlier this year Lothar Matthäus, a former national captain, was chummy with Vladimir Putin, and that blew over fast. Because Matthäus is fair-haired and “ethnically” German? One of “us”, not (like Özil) one of “them”?

Here is what many people in the majority (of any country) don’t grasp: It’s their power to include or exclude that hurts, humiliates and alienates members of minorities, people like Smith or Özil. When the majority lets them be “us,” they’re expected to hum “our” anthem. When it decides they’re “them,” they’re not supposed to complain. Based on his own account, that’s the pain that Özil, like many Germans with foreign roots, has been feeling for years. The pain was bound to erupt someday, somehow. What a pity it turned into this.

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