How black is Colin Kaepernick?
It’s a question that’s popped up ever since the San Francisco 49ers quarterback starting refusing to stand for the national anthem before games.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he explained. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Many saw his protest as a solid “fuck you” to the flag, the military, and America. NFL analyst and former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason called Kaepernick’s protest an embarrassment, saying, presumably with a straight face, that “it’s about as disrespectful as any athlete has ever been.”
Others had less of a problem with the message, but were oddly bothered by the messenger. For them, Kaepernick wasn’t qualified to be the face of black protest, in part, because he wasn’t black enough.
Which brings us back to an age-old question: “How black are you, anyway?”
Well, it depends on the yardstick.
Measuring blackness is an American pastime. Since colonial times, “blackness” points are allocated based on things like skin tone, diction, education, affluence, activities, attire, acquaintances, upbringing, and family. And the scorecard is used by Americans of all stripes to determine whether the owner of that voice deserves an audience, before even dealing with the merits of the message. That’s why it wasn’t hard to find people discussing Kaepernick’s mixed-race heritage and upbringing, even though that has nothing to do with his stand against police brutality. Whether conscious or not, they were assessing his worthiness to be the carrier of a “black message,” which is often a practice of little to no practical utility.
Which is how you get gems like this, from Fox Sports’ Clay Travis:
Kaepernick was raised by two white parents after his own birth parents weren’t willing or able to raise him themselves.
It’s an accurate sentence, but it isn’t relevant to Kaepernick’s protest.
And then there’s former NFL star Rodney Harrison, who was irritated because Kaepernick “is not black”—a characterization that didn’t go over well because, well, Kaepernick is black. Harrison later tweeted, “I never even knew he was mixed,” which still amazingly misses the point because, again…what does Kaepernick’s skin tone have to do with the substance of his protest?
The irony is, in the face of being told one isn’t black enough, American life constantly reminds black people our blackness is being assessed, and that certain situations call for just the right dose of blackness. But the recommended dose of blackness is always in a state of flux, depending on the audience’s sensibilities.
Not only is this a phenomenon as American as apple pie, it’s one that goes straight to the top. In America we can bestow Bill Clinton with the prestigious title of “America’s first black president”—a moniker Clinton loved even though Toni Morrison called him that because of how he was treated over his sex scandals. Then, 10 years later, we can ask then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama when he decided he was black, as 60 Minutes anchor Steve Kroft did in 2007. Yes, that really happened. “Well, I’m not sure I decided it,” Obama replied. “I think if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American.”
So if Obama isn’t immune to the black-o-meter, rest assured that neither is Kaepernick, who one day is told he isn’t black enough, and the next day has to contend with this:
And if all of this is true for Obama and Kaepernick, think of how it is for your resident, non-famous black person who attended a “good school.” Think of how many times they’ve heard “well, you aren’t really black.” Similarly, growing up in a middle class or upper-middle class “good neighborhood” around a lot of white people can also have a detrimental effect on one’s blackness score. Ditto for having a “good job” or making “good money,” provided that job or money isn’t associated with endeavors like entertainment or athletics, where we passively allow blackness and success to co-exist without downgrading the consistency of one’s blackness.
Ultimately, we end up operating from a very reductive definition of blackness, one that sounds a lot like Donald Trump’s definition: “You live in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed.” To many people in America, that is the essence of blackness. That is when black people are at their blackest. And the closer you are to the blackness, the less America wants to hear you speak your mind.
But don’t confuse that reality with the idea that the further you are from that blackness, the more America wants to hear from you, because even when you get out of poverty, into “good schools” or “good jobs,” you’ll never attain whiteness, because the only constant about blackness in America is that the goalposts are constantly moving. That’s how Kaepernick can be mixed race on Monday, a nigger on Tuesday, and a nice white kid raised by pleasant white parents on Wednesday.
So, how black is Colin Kaepernick? Well, it depends on what you want to use him for.