Colin Kaepernick and the Multicultural Bargain

A 49ers fan burning Colin Kaepernick’s jersey

As a black child growing up in the late 90s and early 2000s, a theme of everything we were made to consume was multiculturalism. Books, movies, and shows were replete with images of smiling faces of all colors. Literary opportunities and STEM programs sponsored by the nation’s leading defense contractors were entering our inner-city schools to let us know we could be anything we set our minds to, just like all these amazingly diverse people we were seeing in everything we watched and read.

At the same time, those of us who had been deemed as having potential for the kinds of success that society at large valued, be it academic or sports-related, were quickly being sectioned off from the black folks who had been deemed undesirable and without that potential. Our homerooms were quickly segregated such that the neighborhood kids who were “no good” were phased out of regular interaction with us, while the “gifted” students were lumped together and put on our own specific educational track. I spent 3 years with the same small handful of students at public school because we had been deemed the good ones, the ones who were supposed to make it. I wouldn’t understand the violence done to my peers and I for a long time.

Narratives of exceptional black people are thrust upon us from an early age. The promise of multiculturalism is that if we diversify the images of success, if young people see people like them succeeding, then they can be and do anything they want as young and gifted black children. This is meant to be bolstered by the sight of brilliant black athletes, artists, entertainers and intellectuals. The lesson is clear: We can get to the other side of all this struggle and suffering if we just endure and work hard. Our individual brilliance and talents are surely enough to overcome the limitations of our racial affliction. It’s the promise of the multicultural society, that if we just diversify the elite, let more people in, surely we’ll finally move past this whole “race” thing.

But the promise of multiculturalism comes with some terms and conditions. We can celebrate black athletes, black entertainers, black academics, but in exchange they have to absolve our culture and reassure us of our progress as a nation. They cannot acknowledge racism and white supremacy, and if they do it must never be past an individual level. It must remain confined to instances of interpersonal conflict, never systemic violence. As a result, black public figures often try to straddle a line between espousing pro-black beliefs to inspire us as individuals while also never calling attention to the prevalence of white supremacy in our culture and its damage to our communities.

This is the role black men like Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby have been content to play in our culture for years, stating that black failure is the result of our personal laziness, not the result of centuries of seized wealth and exploited labor. After all, how can racism still exist when Barack Obama is President of The United States and Beyoncé is the most adored entertainer in the country?

It’s why Cam Newton, an athlete that many black people have felt compelled to defend from racialized stereotyping of his on-field behavior in the past, has in a recent interview come out and said that he doesn’t see those incidents as racism and that he believes “we as a nation are beyond that”. Many black people expressed disappointment in his statements, but Newton is doing exactly what is expected of him. It’s his job to remind us that his success means racism is dead and a lack of success in ourselves is evidence of a personal failure, not systems holding us down.

This is why Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem and flag has sparked outrage all across white America. Not only is it a denouncement of America’s pride and belief in its own greatness, but it’s also a violation of the rules. In exchange for “letting” Kaepernick rise up from the rest, his job was to pacify black unrest and assuage white anxiety. Kaepernick isn’t supposed to acknowledge that white supremacy is an on-going reality. He isn’t supposed to stand in any real solidarity with the undesirables among us, those whose murders by the state can be obscured or excused because they weren’t “meant” for greatness in quite the same way. He isn’t supposed to acknowledge the poor and working class black people who experience the brunt of the daily violence of white supremacy in this country. He’s one of the gifted ones.

But when black people like Kaepernick refuse to play their part in this scheme, the ultimate disposability of black excellence in the mainstream consciousness becomes all too clear. Burned jerseys, free-flowing slurs, and coaches, sports casters, soldiers, and righteously upset moms all coming out of the woodwork to decry him as wrong, as ignorant, and as ungrateful.

Ungrateful.

Ungrateful for the money, the fame, and the success they gave to him, because once the niceties are pulled away, the notion of black excellence and achievement being the result of talent and hard work is dismissed and Kaepernick becomes just another black person that white America has deigned to lift up.

We shouldn’t overpraise Kaepernick for a kind of political protest that ordinary black people make regularly with greater risk. We should however view the response to his protest as an example of how ephemeral the adoration black people experience in our culture truly is. We should also take stock of the way other black figures are being trotted out by the media to publicly dismiss Kaepernick’s statements and to re-establish the order of things. Their willingness to stand against him and his words isn’t surprising or out of character. It’s exactly what they’ve been learning to do for years.

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