I’ve kept most of my commentary about Colin Kaepernick confined to Twitter, and “clicking like” on people’s posts on Facebook. As many of you know, I was an MA student at Nevada while he was the quarterback for the Wolf Pack. During that time I became a fan of his, and I have been following his career with interest ever since. What’s more, I teach an African American Studies course here at Purdue called “The Black Athlete.” So the story is relevant to me as both a fan and a scholar.
First, I think it is important to take note of the evolution of Kaepernick’s image. When I was a student at Nevada he was a community hero, a beloved figure to almost everyone. At Nevada he was a hero, but people also recognized he had a complex identity. They respected that and sought to understand him. The media did countless profiles on him and his background, revealing the nuance to his identity.
That treatment and that understanding did not follow him to the NFL. Once he went to the league, few people were aware of who he was, his complex identity, or personality. The national media did not dig up or rely on the Nevada narratives. Instead, while they liked his play, they also saw his tattoos and celebrations, making their own narratives. Quickly he became labeled a “thug,” immature, etc. He was caricatured along the lines of most black athletes, and became stripped of the complex nuances in his life; turned into a stereotype not a man. This representation held no matter his success. In fact, I witnessed many of my own colleagues openly rooting against him in Super Bowl XLVII because they didn’t like his image, attitude, etc., buying into the new and revised narratives.
Of course, the difference between local, college media and national media is important here. But what has struck me, and I have only been able to fully recognized what troubled me for so long in the last year after teaching my course, is that in watching the revision of the Kaepernick narrative from college to the NFL I have been watching how racism works in America. We are capable and even willing to understand and appreciate certain athletes, behaviors, images, in a local, friendly, (and perhaps possessive) setting, but when they become unfamiliar, when they are the enemy, have a larger stage, etc. we care less, take less time, to dig deeper. Nationally, we are OK and comfortable with the caricatures and stereotypes that we would never tolerate in other contexts.
Following Friday’s demonstrations, the stereotypes continue for most. Entitled, ungrateful, prima donna, anti-American, etc. Others yet seemed baffled that an alleged “thug” could also be an activist, retreating to the commonly held stereotype that athletic ability and intellectual depth are mutually exclusive. The perpetuation of these stereotypes are indicative of the exact culture and treatment that Kaepernick is speaking out against.
Second, the analysis of Kaepernick’s demonstration and activism that I have read, has largely ignored the connections to W.E.B. Du Bois. As I learned today, Friday, when he refused to stand for the national anthem, was also the anniversary of Du Bois’ death. Du Bois, of course, coined the term “double consciousness” referring to how African Americans are both black and Americans, a twin identity that is often hard to reconcile given the history of this country and its relationship to race. Indeed, this likely was not lost on Kaepernick. As my friends at Nevada know, each student is required to take “Core Humanities” courses, one of which covers the American Experience. These courses are about perspectives and include discussion sections. DuBois is almost certainly a topic covered.
Additionally, Kaepernick joins a long tradition of black athletes engaging in activism. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar famously refused to play in the 1968 Olympics, saying “It’s not my country” about being unpersuaded by a patriotic duty to compete. Ali, of course, refused induction in the Army. They too invoked Du Bois’ concept, explicating their black identity from larger American nationalist and imperialistic goals that they could not reconcile with their realities. There are several other examples that I wont list here.
I offer these two points to help us understand the historic context of Kaepernick’s actions. The present context is equally complex. A flawed criminal justice system has given rise to the Black Lives Matters moment, Donald Trump has incited a resurgence in white supremacist ideals, and the NFL continues to be the “no fun league” with a major image problem. All of these issues continue to unfold, while Kaepernick pledges to continue “demonstrating” until some sort of real, substantive change happens. Some will say that regardless of the outcome, Kaepernick has been successful redirecting our attention and starting conversations. This is true, but like our awareness of nuance and complexity at the personal level, it can too easily be ignored and written off from a distance. As the story continues, I hope that the narratives surrounding Kaepernick will help us rethink and reevaluate national stereotypes and policies, help us better empathize with pain of living with racism in America, and inspire us to work together to not nostalgically “make American great again” but instead progressively make America a great place for all of us.