NFL player Colin Kaepernick has made headlines recently by refusing to stand for the national anthem before football games in protest. It’s a protest linked to racial identity and politics, as Kaepernick has said that he wants to draw attention to the issue of police brutality, specifically toward people of color in the US. However, a number of political pundits, celebrities and self-identified patriots on social media have taken issue with Kaepernick’s protest. While some of the push back he has received is about the politics of patriotism, a good deal of it is about whether his racial identity gives him the authority and legitimacy to talk about race.
Kaepernick is biracial and was adopted and raised by white parents. His white birthmother is among the critics of his protest, who scolded him on Twitter, saying:
@Kaepernick7 There's ways to make change w/o disrespecting & bringing shame to the very country & family who afforded you so many blessings.
— Heidi Russo (@Heidirn1) August 27, 2016
Some, like Fox News anchor Brian Kilmead, thought Kaepernick ungrateful to his white adoptive parents. Kilmead said: “Let’s be honest, he was adopted by two white parents, he was well supported. He is a great athlete, I’m sure he worked hard, I also heard his grades were great.”
Issues of racial identity and colorism are a key part of this story, as Rebecca Carroll writing at The Guardian, observes:
“While being light-skinned black or biracial, as Kaepernick is, affords its own privileges in a society riddled not just by racism but also by colorism, it doesn’t offer full immunity from racism – or anything close to it. Trolls called Kaepernick racial epithets, after all. He is a reminder that being black in America, no matter how light or dark skinned you are, means shielding yourself against the inevitable arbitrary assessment of your worth at the drop of a dime.”
As a self-identified multiracial scholar, the Kaepernick controversy has made think a lot about racial identity. I’m intrigued by the geneaology of race and racial identities—how much our categories for racial identification shift, yet how much they seemingly remain the same. The interest isn’t purely an intellectual one-it’s personal too. My mother is White (Irish) and my father is Brown (Latino). Because race is so salient in the United States—it’s how we organize and categorize much of our society—race is an integral part of our identity.
Personally, I’ve just had a difficult journey figuring out where I fit in. I was never Latina enough. I didn’t speak the language or embody the culture. Whites knew I wasn’t one of them-my nose looked different, my hair much too dark. But in a society that places a premium on race, how do you find consciousness if your existence has been racialized but you don’t fit into the preexisting racial categories? How can you be heard? What is your role in the fight for racial justice?
The public often uses racial identity as a litmus test as to whether people can attest to certain kinds of racial realities and lived experiences. If you’re black, then you can discuss the lived experiences of what your particular life has been like as a veritable person of color. If you’re white, you can try to understand the realities of white privilege and the oppression people of color must contend with in their daily navigation of life. But racial identity in much of the Western world has largely been constructed as dichotomous—you are black or you are white. If you’re racially ambiguous, your own testament to experiences as a member of a marginalized community is often silenced.
Kaepernick, like Jesse Williams an actor with a black father and a white mother who spoke out about racial injustice in a speech at the BET awards, have both faced resistance because of their mixed racial backgrounds, though both self-identify as Black. As the number of biracial and multiracial people in the United States increases, how do we reconfigure racial categories in a way that allows people to define their own realities and speak about issues that affect them as racialized bodies and beings?
Biracial and multiracial communities are not a monolith and they experience varying degrees of racialization. To be black and white is not the same as being white and Japanese. The racial identities of multiracial and biracial people are often constructed and decided for them, not by them, and when they do speak to issues of racism they are often silenced or discredited. In a country that continues to be plagued by the insidiousness of racism, the inclusion and validation of the experiences of marginalization is more important than ever to spark change.
In his prescient and seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, sociologist W.E.B DuBois suggested that, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” Written in 1903, DuBois couldn’t foresee how relevant and timely his work would be in the 21st century. Dubois explores the black experience in the United States and the construction of race and its implications for power and control. One of Dubois’ more salient concepts, “double consciousness,” articulates the experience of viewing yourself through the eyes of the oppressed and the oppressor simultaneously and asserts a framework for understanding the lived experiences of people of color. Conversely, in The Souls of White Folk (1920), DuBois aims to understand whiteness and its accompanying constructed and ensuing white superiority, imperialism, and colonialization.
In Black Skin, White Masks (1952), philosopher Frantz Fanon spends much time unpacking the psychological implications of colonization for people of color, articulating a resistance theory that defied the “dependency complex of the colonized” (Chapter 4). Fanon argues that Black people must actualize their critical consciousness toward empowerment. White people have constructed whiteness to be superior, and some Black people, Fanon posits, internalize the notion that white people are superior and develop an inferiority complex. But what happens to people of a multiracial or biracial background? Where do they (we) fit in now? Where did they (we) fit in historically?
Historically, there has only been Black or White when it comes to racial identity. There has been little wiggle room in between for emerging/shifting/evolving racial identities. This racially dichtomized categorization has been reinforced through our history. For example, think of the antiquated “one drop rule,” which decreed that anyone with a drop of “black blood” would be considered black. During slavery, children born to a slave mother immediately adopted her social and racial status despite the racial status of the father. Sure, you had the dehumanizing and mathematical sounding fractional configurations of racial identity—octoroon, quadroon, and mulatto. But all of those labels signified varying degrees of blackness. Biraciality and multiracialty weren’t concrete identities; to whites, these were gradations of Blackness. To other blacks, those gradations came with social and material benefits associated with proximity to whiteness.
By refusing to stand for the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick has not only made headlines. He’s asserted his right to speak out about racial justice and distanced himself from the benefits of whiteness.
~ Alyssa Lyons is a graduate student in sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY