Madison Polkowitz / Gavel Media

Shut up and Play: Tokenism in the Age of Kaepernick

Athletes are perfect targets for American objectification and subsequent tokenism. Their talents and careers rely on strength, speed, and agility, as opposed to seemingly more complex talents like acting, singing, or speaking. The team aspect of sports also leaves athletes subject to simplification; they function as part of the whole, not as individuals pitted against each other. Wrap all this up into an ever-inflating salary and a perfect recipe for a crazy mix of idolization and contempt is created. These issues would exist regardless of the race or cultural background of athletes, but American racial history means the stakes are even higher and the backlash more intense and complicated.

Colin Kaepernick stepping back into the spotlight amidst a changing culture means this issue is in the front of the minds of Americans. Addressing the problem means facing uncomfortable truths about American culture and how to move forward as a nation. Nonetheless, it must be discussed if Americans want to really enjoy sports now and in the future.

Kaepernick’s treatment in the press is hardly new. Black athletes have continuously been criticized for taking things too far or for being too intense. Yet to many people the criticism of Kap is confusing, as if it came out of a time machine. White society seems to have come so far in respecting people of color as valid and valuable members of society. Why, then, do people still tense up when athletes like Kaepernick or Lebron James speak out?

While creating opportunities for people of color is admirable, the other hurdle to overcome is extending to people of color the same consideration given to white people. White artists' or athletes' opinions and experiences are acknowledged and even celebrated. The same phenomenon doesn’t occur for black athletes and celebrities, who are limited to being only entertainers. Political messages in rap, for example, are controversial but seemingly natural and brave in rock or country. Players kneeling for the anthem is disrespectful, but kneeling in prayer or as a statement about abortion is noble. This is where tokenism comes into play.

Many people believe that black athletes should serve as entertainers and nothing more. So when they step beyond that mold, they are rebuked as being too divisive or told they do not know what they’re talking about. Lebron, upon making political statements, was told to “Shut up and dribble,” and Kaepernick, due to his protests, is engaged in a lawsuit alleging discrimination and blacklisting.

The same treatment is carried over to music, where black artists are deemed controversial for placing political messages in music videos or songs. This pushback is almost certain, especially in a hyperpolarized landscape following the election of Donald Trump to the highest office. Many people thought Obama’s election was a sign of progress in race relations in this country, which makes controversy over Kaepernick even more confusing. However, diving deeper into the Obama presidency uncovers a potential model for how these tensions arose in the first place.

Obama was consistently criticized by the Right for being too racially divisive, while many on the Left wished he would lean more into his role as the first black president. The constant spectrum of racial division that followed Obama through his presidency fuels the same conversation today. Pundits thought any language from a black president about race was meant to attack the nation’s unity, similar to the way they consider Kaepernick’s protest to be anti-American and subversive. They refused to accept Obama’s experience on race relations, instead pointing to the fact that he was president as enough to prove that racial disunity was gone. The same is said about Kaepernick’s protest, as many accuse him of being hypersensitive in criticizing a country that “allows” him to make millions of dollars and speak his mind. This is a baffling contradiction, as it grants Kaepernick the right to freedom of speech and then criticizes him for using it.

Among all these examples runs a common thread: tokenism. Prominent black citizens are praised for rising to whatever level they have but also criticized in the same sentiment for using that position to try and bring about real change. Obama was too divisive, Kaepernick was too disrespectful, and artists like Childish Gambino are now too provocative. The question then is, in what way is it appropriate for black people to protest racial inequality? If they can’t do it from public office, their place in popular culture, or even in the streets as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, then where is it acceptable for them to speak their minds?

The double standard is extended to athletes taking positive action in their communities. While casual charities that bring good PR to teams or the league are allowed, if not encouraged, genuine action by athletes is derided by the media as overstepping or misguided. Lebron James’ I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio is a prime example of this situation. James is using his millions accrued by sponsorships, as well as his status as one of the best players in the league, to fund elite educational opportunities for children in order to propel them towards bountiful opportunities. Rather than addressing one facet of the educational issues faced by underrepresented students, James decided to tackle the issue as a whole.

James' model partially funds the school to ensure free tuition and supplies for students, as well as college readiness to unlock these students' potential. While taxpayers end up covering part of the bill because the I Promise School is part of the Akron public school system, the money is more effectively utilized in the I Promise School. This money would otherwise be spread among several schools without the same net benefit for students. This half-and-half model should be admired by both sides as a proper and creative extension of the free market into education, but instead it’s derided by Conservatives as tone-deaf and doomed to fail. Media sources report the $2.5 million spent on the school for 2018-19 leaves an unsustainable model for public schools, even though that funding is less than 1% of Akron’s $345 million public school budget for the year.

The positive benefits of Lebron’s school, such as access to a food pantry for struggling families and free tuition to the University of Akron for graduates, have been overshadowed by the wrong conversations, like whether it’s right for schools to turn to athletes for funding and whether Lebron, who never attended college, is the right person to spearhead this effort. Ultimately, the question boils down to whether a once-in-a-generation athlete can use the fruits of his talents for good or if he should just keep them for himself and maybe a half-baked charity. The question then becomes, if Lebron had spent the same amount of money on parties or lavish gifts, would he still face media criticism? Put another way, what method of utilizing his station as an exceptional athlete is allowed by a predominately white media? What is the proper extension of his celebrity status?

This question has been brought up to members of the conservative media and has gone unanswered. The unspoken truth is that there is no acceptable way for black people to protest or bring about change in the eyes of whites, particularly white Conservatives. This is why Kaepernick’s relentless protesting is essential, and projects like Lebron’s school are equally as important. Kaepernick accepts the fact that nothing he does will be appropriate in the eyes of a white community that simply wants to pretend racism doesn’t exist in America. Both Kap and Lebron have been given a platform based on their incredible talents and abilities, and now they’re using that attention to shine light on the same oppression that has left many people like them in poverty, prison, or worse.

Racial progress in America has never been easy, but now it seems especially grueling. White Americans want to point to the many things done correctly in the name of progress and ignore the evidence that there’s still a long way to go. In this climate, no statement made by black athletes or other celebrities will seem right. Protesting will seem divisive only because it shines light on the real divisions that whites have gone blind to today. Action will seem divisive only because it takes power out of white hands and puts it into black ones.

Americans cannot shy away, however, as this discussion must happen in a changing culture where racial divisions will only intensify. White people make up a smaller proportion of the American population, and culture is changing to reflect that—even in sports. But ignorance is part of what has enabled virulent white nationalism to find its way into culture and public office.

Americans of all backgrounds must come to terms with biases and prejudices, and that requires every reminder possible. The only way to bridge racial divides is to walk through them and come out wiser on the other side. It will not be easy, but no progress ever has been.

In the meantime, black Americans cannot and will not shut up or sit down to accommodate the standards of whites. Beyond tokenism lies a society where athletes are as complex as the people they play for and where diversity can finally flourish. In this spirit, Americans may finally fulfill their promise to create a more perfect union, where all people access their inalienable rights. This is something Americans ought to stand, or kneel, for in this day and age.

A Clevelander trying to bring some Midwestern optimism to Boston College.