Colin Kaepernick Backlash Proof of White Fragility

Note: This story originally appeared on my blog on August 29, 2016.

Professional football fans are outraged at San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand during the playing if the national anthem. When asked, Kaepernick replied that he:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. 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.

This controversial (read: spot-on) stance was immediately met with backlash with more than a few Twitter users criticizing Kaepernick’s apparent lack of patriotism and his attempts to inject political debate into pro sports.

This begs the question: why are people shocked that a mixed race man of African descent actually gives a crap about what happens to other less privileged black people? And why do people think that it is inappropriate for athletes to have opinions about what goes on in the outside world? Yeah, a sports arena is as close to a raceless space as anything in contemporary America, but Colin Kaepernick doesn’t live on the football field. At some point, Mr. Kaepernick has to leave the arena and live his life. And racism is a fact of life for all people of color.

And Kaepernick’s actions aren’t even shocking when they are considered in a historical context. Kaepernick is simply doing the twenty-first century version of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympic Games. And Tommie Smith and John Carlos were taking up the torch from Muhammad Ali who had, one year earlier, refused to be drafted in the Vietnam War. And Ali was most likely taking more than a few cues from boxing great, Jack Johnson, who defied societal rules about the proper place of black men in early twentieth century America.

The fact that (mostly white) people took offense to this is proof that “white fragility” is a very real thing, a real thing that silences people of color who have legitimate complaints and criticisms about how the world treats them.

According to Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a race and social justice educator:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium…

Anna Kegler, a contributor to the Huffington Post, in her own analysis of white fragility, put the list of these behaviors into a helpful graphic:

When Kaepernick refused to rise for the anthem and then took to Twitter to tell people why, Kaepernick created intolerable racial stress by talking directly about his own racial perspective, suggesting that his membership in the black community was important to him, insisted that African-American access to justice and respectful treatment was unequal, and then challenging whites who suggested that he keep his feelings to himself. No wonder, outraged sports fans are piling on him right now.

And for all that, Kaepernick hewing to the party line about “post-racial America” or, at the very least, remaining silent, won’t even work for him long term. Anyone who watched the ESPN documentary, OJ: Made in America, knows that OJ Simpson’s particular brand of apolitical racelessness didn’t work for him at all.

So I say that anyone who is offended by Kaepernick’s words and actions should really think about why they are so invested in sports stars remaining silent about their realities. And they should definitely stop burning sports jerseys.