Looking at the Discourse Around Colin Kaepernick

“Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart,” wrote Michel Foucault in his landmark work The History of Sexuality. Foucault believed that power is not so much concentrated in the hands of a few actors (agents, people, etc.) but that it “comes from everywhere” and can be found in the way we talk and write about things. He tended to refer to “power/knowledge”, insinuating that the way our society structures its knowledge generates and disperses power. Yes, we have rulers, and yes, we have laws, but the true dominant power structures do not come from single actors but from the discourse those actors find themselves in; Congress can declare war, but in order to declare war, there needs to be an environment in which Congress (and the voters) can discuss the possibility of war.

What does any of the above have to do with Colin Kaepernick? Quite a bit, as it turns out. In Foucauldian discourse analysis, one of the primary points to identify in a discourse is what one is and is not allowed to say/write. Much of the discussion about Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the US National Anthem has centered around the limits of his act of protest. A common case being made for Kaepernick from those who agree or disagree is that he is simply within his rights, which is certainly undeniable. This is a basic assertion of the speaking space allocated by the Constitution. While this space is necessary, it more exists to allow the act of subversion rather than actually give the subvert a platform in which they can safely speak.

A common case against Kaepernick, which is one proffered (tellingly) by mostly conservative whites, is that he has no business disrespecting the anthem of the “thousands of men and women who have laid down their lives” for his “right to protest”. This is, first and foremost, an act of violence; it is grabbing Kaepernick by the throat and saying “you may NOT speak in this manner”. It is a perfect example of the “war” model of societal relations that Foucault proposed. By policing the method in which Kaepernick can speak about his views on race, this view preemptively strikes down his point and attempts to destroy any avenue for dialogue. Some of those who oppose Kaepernick his speech do weakly engage his point, but only to deny his right as a wealthy football player to speak about oppression. Either way, dialogue is rejected.

Interestingly, many of those who support Kaepernick effectively deny the attempt to quash his protest by directly engaging what he has to say. Some take it further, and instead of supporting Kaepernick, they find themselves supported by him. A quick glance at the stream of positive articles and tweets about the quarterback will give the reader a mix of thoughts building off of the discourse started by him and simple displays of gratitude. Kaepernick and those writing positively about his act have effectively created (or perhaps, reinforced) a space of solidarity.

This space of solidarity can only go so far, though. In this battleground that is discourse, what needs to happen (for those who agree with Kaepernick) is discussion with those who deny him. Instead, two separate spaces form, and no dialogue results. And no dialogue will likely happen immediately, since the “patriots” who love the national anthem only stand to lose by acknowledging subversion. We see this over and over again in discourse; when subversion is acknowledged and discussed, the discourse is forever altered. Foucault (and later, Judith Butler) hammer this point in the context of human sexuality; by talking about homosexuality the way we do, we create the space for it. It’s not that homosexuality is made by talking about it, but rather, the possibility of homosexuality is made known to those in the discourse.

By denying Kaepernick his voice, the mostly white conservatives are attempting to deny the possibility of his experience. However, as many have noticed, this denial will eventually dissipate. One can look no further than Newt Gingrich’s claim that white Americans “don’t understand being black in America”, as well as Glenn Beck’s “All Pies Matter” illustration, to see that the possibility of an oppressed black experience is slowly being acknowledged by those who had opposed it. In this shift alone, we can see the power in discourse. And of course, “power is everywhere”.