The first time I really reconsidered my relationship to America happened in the sixth grade. I’m in the lunchroom with other black kids, bullshitting about whatever it is tweens talked about in the early 2000s (Ludacris maybe?). Inevitably, the conversation turned to our very-elementary attempts at having some sort of black consciousness. On this day, I heard a fellow black student talk about his refusal to stand for the flag and recite the pledge of allegiance, which was how we opened each day at Swift Creek Middle School. Because of this speech, I also stopped pledging allegiance and started thinking about what it is America wants from me, as well as what I wanted out of this place. To this day, his voice still rattles in my head asking the same question: Think about it, what are you pledging your allegiance to?
That question immediately came to mind in 2016, when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the national anthem at his NFL games started making news. After a number of high-profile incidents, usually involving cops, that led to the murders of a number of black people and youths, a black starting NFL quarterback was holding his own silent protest every Sunday. As a compromise, based on a suggestion from former NFL player and veteran Nate Boyer, Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem instead. This seemed to create an even bigger firestorm, one that exceeded what Kaepernick seemed to have anticipated. Beyond the racism always on display when black people (particularly successful black people) show a disobedience towards the customs of this country, interrogating our loyalties to the various traditions of this nation is not something Americans tend to handle very well. Everyone knows the story from here—Kaepernick knelt; he donated his checks; a lot of conservative media and the white people who watch the NFL freaked out on cue; more players joined him, some decried him; the San Francisco 49ers cut him at the end of the season and he hasn’t played football since. Effectively blackballed, Kaepernick mostly stayed quiet as the echoes of his act continued to reverberate throughout sports and culture at large. It’s hard to truly explain how insane things got at the peak of all this, even just a few years after the fact; getting down on one knee now conjures up images of Kaepernick, resplendent in his afro, as much as it does marriage. It really was momentous; it’s a very rare thing for any one person to become such a resonant symbol in real time.
So forgive my naivety for wanting more from Kaepernick than what we’ve gotten since that whirlwind season. During those five years, Kaepernick filed a grievance with NFL owners for colluding to keep him out of the league, which was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount. He made a few statements in passing about his desire to play again and shared words of support and joined a few protests during last year’s summer of protests after the murder of George Floyd. He did a Nike commercial and was paid a lot of money for it. The Nike thing, which was instantly infamous in wildly disparate quarters, didn’t really bother me as much as it probably should have. Yes, it was obvious that a billion-dollar corporation was jumping on “diversity” and black empowerment at a moment when it seemed hot in order to sell some sneakers, but also Kaepernick no longer had a job and seemed to have something he wanted to say and no real place to say it. I cut him a break.
That’s where we find ourselves with Colin in Black & White, a new Netflix series about his coming of age as a young, adopted athlete in Turlock, California, created by Kaepernick and Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma and the documentary The 13th. Colin in Black & White is presented as both a way to show the beginnings of Kap’s own black consciousness while growing up around white people and also a medium for the real Colin Kaepernick, the activist, to share his own black history lessons and cultural critiques of America and sports with viewers. It is also, maybe more than anything else, an airing of grievances—at the NFL, at organized sports, at his hometown, even at his parents. All of this is worthy and virtually all of those grievances have some merit, and yet the show just does not work.
Shows about how annoying and racist white people are tend to bore me, mainly because I don’t think whiteness is very interesting or special. I like when things featuring black people are actually about black people. This is to say that Colin in Black & White is a bad show, and that I knew it would be a bad show. But that part is not really special, either. The reason I pressed play despite being sure of all that was because I wanted to know something about who Colin Kaepernick is, and maybe what he wants to be in this post-NFL career chapter.
The most surprising thing about Colin in Black & White was how petty it seemed. The show opens with a very obvious (and pretty tired) comparison between the NFL draft/combine and slave auctions, and Kap pontificates on how a white ownership class still practices evaluating black men on their bodies and athletic ability just as they once did on the plantation. When I talked about my elementary intros to black consciousness conversations I’d have with other kids at the sixth grade lunch table, it was full of stuff like this. It’s one of those things that isn’t completely wrong—power dynamics and biases between white owners and black players are the source of many racial issues in sports—but it is also both lazy and disrespectful to the actual black people forced into slavery who did not get paid at all for their part in that degrading power dynamic. It also sidesteps the actual agency that players still have—that they bargained for and won—while taking part in this ritual. It’s not that the observation is wrong, really, so much as that it’s both old and elementary.
And it’s pretty much all like this. The entire series is very much black empowerment for beginners, processing a great deal of work and scholarship on race relations and trying to present it in a “fun” pop culture language for TV. Using Carlton Banks clips to talk about how white people prefer us to act, for instance, or black beauty queens to show the power of loving your blackness, or clips of Trump calling protesters thugs to communicate how black people standing for their rights are treated. It is not a show that traffics in subtlety; honestly, the only way it could be more obvious is if they used that Family Matters, TGIF-very-special-episode music to underscore the point every time a white man tells Colin—the character who represents the show’s hero and occasional narrator in some interstitial biographical bits—to turn down all that damn rap music.
The show tries to make Colin (played by Jaden Michael) and his childhood seem interesting by taking the laundry list of racial resentments that would build over time while living in a mostly white enclave with adoptive white parents and then stitching them alongside a series of interludes in which the real, grown-up Kap explains an overarching thesis for how whiteness imposes its will on black people on a macro level. There are kind of a lot of personal shots at his parents—played here, inexplicably, by Nick Offerman and Mary Louise Parker—for being ignorant about how to deal with their black son when he wants to wear braids, or siding with other white adults whenever they treat him inhumanely. There’s also animosity towards coaches who dismiss him as a quarterback or scoff that he’s not “playing the right way.” Again, this is not new stuff; even goofing on this kind of hackish bigotry is familiar by now.
In one episode, Kaepernick seems to want credit for finding black women beautiful and wanting to date one over the white girl his mom picked out for him (there’s a LOT of parental resentment, I cannot stress this enough). Personal stories of racism are important, because they create an overarching narrative of what it is to be black in America. But also there is something to be said about the ways in which mostly well-off black people depict the personal microaggressions they face while living amongst white people and comparing it to the much graver circumstances of the poor and black who end up receiving the material consequences and violence of white racism.
The best scene in all of Colin in Black & White happens in the third episode. Colin feels as if he’s being treated like a lab rat by the staff of the hotel where he’s staying, then runs into an all-black youth baseball team that’s also staying at the hotel. They talk for a minute about the way the staff treats them, and about how the black baseball team has been kicked out of the hotel before. They dap up, and then Colin goes back with his white parents. Something struck me in that moment that isn’t exactly in the show. For all the discomfort that the hotel or anyone else causes Colin, he is also not actually like those other black players. He has the shield of his parents and his white teammates to protect him when things get too racially intense, as they do in the next scenes. Those other black players only have each other, and so are that much more vulnerable.
Early in the series, narrator Kap talks about assuming that his parents’ privileges were also his and finding out tragically that they weren’t. This is true, but it’s also not completely the truth. There are privileges that his parents guaranteed him that the show either isn’t willing to acknowledge or wants to pretend doesn’t matter. There is a privilege to having your white adoptive parents essentially act as your spokesperson to put other white people at ease. There’s also a privilege in being able to get into the white schools and camps and programs that can help propel you to higher levels of sports. There’s privilege in being the star athlete in town. Nobody likes dealing with cops, especially black people, but man it’s sure nice to have your white parents there when you get pulled over. White privilege exists, and it’s such a power bomb within different societal contexts that in its wake it can also affect a black kid like Colin Kaepernick who has white parents, or black people who live in good neighborhoods and attend private schools, or black internationals that have no ties to American slavery and Jim Crow.
This keeps happening. All of what’s most interesting about Colin in Black & White are these things that the show doesn’t talk about. Here’s something else: what made Colin, a mixed race kid with white parents in a white community, actually want to identify with “blackness.” This isn’t about whether or not Colin is black, because that’s not in question. What I’m talking about is more cultural. Part of race being a social construct is the choice to what degree we participate in making race part of an identity. It’s partially a performance, but the show treats it like it’s an obvious thing for Colin, something innate that he just doesn’t have the words to express yet. Colin on the show has one or two black friends, but he has no black role models or guides beyond the people he’s a fan of, like Allen Iverson. While it’s easy to understand how the white people around him make him feel uncomfortable or condescend to him, it would be pretty easy to expect him to just fall into the trap of being what they think he should be. So what is it that actually stops him? It could be something innate, but your environment tends to shape people more than most would care to admit. We don’t see him read any books or watch black tv shows or even listen to any rap music. Yet, in the first episode, Colin goes to some sort of combination hip-hop clothing store and barbershop and acts like Sincere at the end of Belly going to Africa. Colin’s black identity is just a thing that goes unsaid, held strong despite every white adult around him being relentlessly, cartoonishly insensitive to his very existence.
Just about every coach, referee, umpire, or general sport authority in this series, all of them white, does something to undermine young Colin. They tell him to run laps when he has a headache, they make him cut his braids off for looking unprofessional, they assume he doesn’t understand his playbook, they tell him to check his attitude at the slightest moment of surliness, they tell him to be more team-oriented. Whether these stories are true or not is a dumb and mostly meaningless question to me; it’s very realistic, but what exactly am I meant to get out of it?
But maybe I’m wrong to assume that I’m even the target audience. One of the biggest problems with this genre of black racial education television is figuring out just who is supposed to get anything from it. Is it for kids, to get some sort of enlightenment and encouragement while they’re still young and impressionable? Is it for white people, who have a fetish for racial self-flagellation, and feel like they’re better allies for seeking out entertainment that tells them how much black people resent them? I find this kind of show deeply suspicious because it’s not actually about blackness at all. Instead, it is subsumed by a world of whiteness and how bad it makes you feel to be black within that galaxy. There’s a brand of black edutainment that exists to cathartically take apart not white supremacy, but the specific white people that every successful black person has had to put up with and perform their “exceptional-ness” for in order to get to a place where they can, for example, have their own television show. Actual black people, however, are expected to be happy just to see another black person on their screen, and not get too fixated on the fact that they are being “spoken at” instead of “in dialogue with.”
The fact that Colin Kaepernick made one of those shows with Ava DuVernay doesn’t bother me so much as the fact that this is how he’s chosen to move forward after football—not as an activist, but as a celebrity who makes content. It makes the Nike commercial that much more obvious in its shamelessness; it reminds me of another gross commercial for Cadillac, this one featuring BLM leader Tamika Mallory. Last summer, after the murder of George Floyd, protests and riots were kicking off all over the country. Calls to “defund the police ” had entered into mainstream conversation, and for one beautiful moment, something monumental seemed possible. Over a year later, the end result has mostly added up to a new milquetoast president and more representation on TV. In retrospect, those bizarre advertisements play like evidence of that co-option and compromise happening in real time.
Perhaps if MLK had lived, he too would have an overall deal with Disney+ to fight for black liberation. I want to be clear that Colin Kaepernick doesn’t owe me (or us) anything. He’s entitled to live the life he chooses. But while those old postgame pressers in 2016 were very raw, it seemed like he was really trying for something resembling a radical politic. It’s more than a little disappointing to watch someone who did something brave and defiant in opposition to a corrupt corporation reduced to partnering with a different kind of corrupt corporation just to make “racism is bad” content.
But Colin Kaepernick is just a person, and most people want to do enough that someone makes a TV show or movie about them. It is evident that he is angry at the NFL for blackballing him out of the league, and he is justified in that. For all the ire he garnered, Kaepernick also earned a lot of love, respect, and yes, celebrity. I don’t know how Colin wants to spend his next chapter, and perhaps he is interested in making the most out of his celebrity. That is definitely his right, too, but after watching him talk about all the many obstacles and exploitation he had to endure to play football at the highest level, I hope he has better prepared himself to deal with what awaits him in another white game in Hollywood.