Colin Kaepernick, Racial Identity and the Power of Protest

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.

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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:

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.

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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

 

Anti-Racist Protest in Minneapolis against NFL Team Name

Earlier this week (Nov.3), approximately 5,000 anti-racist activists marched from the University of Minnesota campus to the nearby NFL stadium to demand change of the name of the ‘Redskins’ franchise.

According to one report, a Native American (name not given) speaker said, “They don’t know how to honor us. We honor ourselves today.” People marching held up signs, some of which read: “Racial slurs are not an honor” and “There is no honor in a name that represents racism.” The comments contrasted those made previously by team owner Dan Snyder, who has insisted that the dictionary-defined offensive term actually means “honor” and “respect” toward Native Americans.

This short news video (3:02) reports on the march:

What action will you take to counter systemic racism?

New Freedom Riders Take on NYPD

Here in New York, people of good conscience are horrified by the practices of the NYPD that systematically target young African Americans and Latinos. Now, a courageous interracial group of activists is working to take on the NYPD’s racist practices (h/t @CarlaMurphy for this story).

Union Sq subway @ 1am
Creative Commons License photo credit: droolcup

In a recent piece at The American Prospect, Carla Murphy describes the burgeoning movement like this:

This February marks the first wave of trials for a loose-knit group of activists who have been arrested after responding to a call put out last fall by Princeton professor Cornel West and his longtime friend Carl Dix, a national spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist Party. Inspired by the nonviolent civil disobedience campaign of the Freedom Rides to draw attention to segregated interstate bus travel during the 1960s, West and Dix’s Stop Stop-and-Frisk campaign seeks to raise awareness of what they say is a racist policy that targets and criminalizes black and Latino men.

“We’re always hearing about post-racial America, but if you look at the criminal-justice system, you know that race is still with us,” says Derek Catsam, history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin and author of Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides.

It’s long past time for a coalition of activists to work on changing the stop-and-frisk policies of the NYPD.

The stop-and-frisk policies are notoriously racist in their implementation, if not their design. According to the NYCLU, only 10 percent of stops led to arrests, or even tickets. The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers stopped and frisked by the NYPD were engaged in no criminal wrongdoing.

Of those stopped in a given year, approximately 55 percent of the stops were of black people – more than double their percentage of the population – and 30 percent were of Latinos. Stops of whites amounted to only 2.6 percent of the stops.

Returning to Murphy’s piece, she raises the question of whether these protests will bring about actual change in the NYPD policy. But for onlookers along the march’s route through the South Bronx, though, public demonstrations on this issue matter a great deal—and so does the participation of whites. She writes:

Besides the kumbaya imagery of many races working together for racial justice and modeling the Freedom Riders’ integration ideal, there is a practical and strategic element to expanding the stop-and-frisk protesting ranks to whites.  Alicia Harrington, a 24-year-old African American Bronx resident, helps to plan Stop Stop and Frisk civil-disobedience demonstrations but has three months left on probation and worries about an arrest for protesting.

“A lot of young black and Latinos have prior convictions or are on parole, and it intimidates them from acting,” Dix says, admitting that the population most targeted by stop-and-frisk is also the least able to demonstrate against police brutality.

But, “as a white man,” says 29-year-old social worker Nick Malinowski, “I have the privilege of being able to get arrested for civil disobedience when other people might not.” Malinowski, who the last six months has organized five stop-and-frisk demonstrations in every borough except Staten Island, has one arrest for protesting.

I agree with Murphy that it’s not clear whether these protests will bring about real change.  But, the fact that they’re happening at all is very good news for social justice.

 

Protest Fox’s Racism in NYC Today

I’m traveling all day today (from Berkeley back to NYC), so won’t be able to attend this, but if you’re in the NYC-area and want to do something about the racism in the media, specifically Fox News, here’s your chance. Today, hip hop star Nas will join members of ColorOfChange.org and MoveOn.org to deliver 620,127 petition signatures demanding that FOX end its pattern of racist attacks against Black Americans including presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. The group will make the delivery at 2:00pm on Wednesday, July 23rd at FOX in Manhattan. More about this event here.