Reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s inaction stand as a stark reminder of White ownership culture, its love of The Employer, and the personal offense of protest.
It’s strange, isn’t it? The way this outrage over Colin Kaepernick’s incredibly peaceful protest, directed at the United States as a whole, has shifted into a discussion about veterans.
You could say it should be expected. Football after all, from the politicized ceremony centered around a war-themed anthem of a nation to a ubiquitous (and paid) military presence, to the structure of the game itself, is a product of militarized conflict. Any disruption of the game — from concerns over players’ wellbeing, to protest like Kaepernick’s — can pluck at the emotional fibers of many Americans’ identities as citizens of a nation of conquerors.
But the man was not unclear in his critique. There was something else.
I started watching and listening, and I heard another theme — One that evoked Kaepernick’s income, his job to just “do sports”, and his relationship with the NFL. I heard the nebulous concept of “respect” tossed about as the conversation clumsily turned toward a “betrayal” of those who’ve served in the military. Energy built, but the conversation made no more sense. Colin Kaepernick had not mentioned veterans, and there was no reason for him to — The abuses he’s addressed could arguably exist without the actions of a military presence on foreign soil (the only type of veteran we have living right now.)
I believe that in his inaction, Kaepernick touched on something much more personal, real, and culturally elemental to your everyday American…something that is amplified when a powerful employer like the NFL comes into the mix, and that is the implied cultural and behavioral agreement that comes along with entering into an American employment agreement.
The Concept of American Ownership
Americans, in practice, function on a cultural legacy of belief that the social construct of money can and should be able to buy non-constructed things. Things like aspects of nature and the human self. Though not exclusive to the U.S., it is in no way a universal belief. It is not a law of science or, as far as I know, even of any religion.
As I’m writing this, the largest gathering of Native Americans in 100 years is going on in protest of the Dakota Pipeline and its destruction of burial grounds, clean water sources, and cultural identity. I ran across a quote from an Oglala Lakota leader that I believe illuminates at least a piece of what’s going on around Colin Kaepernick.
One does not sell the land people walk on. ~Crazy Horse
The concept of ownership — Where many cultures believe that land cannot be owned, let alone bought or sold, others, in this case, White American culture, believes it can, and even should. It has founded an entire country, economy, and system of political participation and human value on this concept.
This premise, though — the idea that things not made by human hands can be commodified — does not stop at land. It extends to social engagement, use of time, and political engagement, and this, this is the nerve I believe Colin Kaepernick has struck most harshly.
Kaepernick and his helmet-defying afro have ruffled conceptual veteran-loving feathers of course, but his paycheck is what’s really got people upset.
I invite you to pay attention to how often his “wealth” or high salary is brought up in the same conversation as “respect”. Look at how much people are reveling in the idea of him being let go from his job (or at least demoted), or his coworkers turning on him (Just the other day I heard a man angrily delighting in the potential betrayal of his defensive line…a betrayal that would no doubt result in physical harm of a now-even-Blacker body.) His visual and vocal Blackness makes it that much more insulting.
Know that there are many people out there who believe that Kaepernick’s silence, or actually, in this case, compliance, have been bought and paid for with their consumption of sports entertainment, jerseys, and Fatheads via an institution that evokes devotion and attention rivaling the White American Church.
Employment in White Culture
“She said she didn’t want to come to lunch…I don’t get why not.”
My manager had whispered this to the firm owner who’d chosen to hire me. It was at my first decent job and as such, a firm reminder of an unspoken clause in the employment contract. I learned early that White people, especially the non-poor, generally do not see a job as simply a means of survival. For Black people, largely for our own mental and emotional protection, a job is just a job. To them, a job carries with it a social agreement.
A job can be reason enough to leave your family, home, and community and never return. It, beyond the necessity of a paycheck, is reason to adjust your free time, skip vacations, forego hobbies, and neglect your health. While I remember Black mothers at my church amazed at the social expectations their newly-employed and professional children were asked to navigate (e.g. someone a few years older than me had been expected to go skiing with her manager), most White Americans I’ve run into naturally accept that a paycheck comes with a certain level of control over individual life choices…Anything from dress, to hairstyles, to who you spend your lunch hours and weekends with…and yes, the expression of your politics.
Most will accept that you might hold different beliefs than them, but they have a tacit cultural agreement that a paycheck buys silence — In many ways, what the Church is to Black Americans, the Workplace is to White. (Fun exercise: Check out some atheist criticisms of religion and how the implied issues of control align with the influence employers and corporations carry over life decisions and applied worldviews.)
It is a place to find friends and connection. A place to assess and build social hierarchy. A place to establish language, love, and power. Don’t think it’s that important? Look at how much of mainstream entertainment is devoted to the workplace. The Office. Mary Tyler Moore, and Office Space. WKRP and 30 Rock. Mad Men. I seriously just ran into a friend happily sporting a Schrute Beet Farm shirt yesterday. Some of their most classic and well-known songs even cover the abusive nature of the employment relationship.
This isn’t to say that mainstream, White-centered shows don’t exist outside the workplace (plenty exist) or that Black shows and movies aren’t concerned with work too…they are, but Khadijah’s work at Flavor Magazine was an extension of her character. The same with Cliff Huxtable and his work as an obstetrician. I’ve tried to find one, but my well-honed Google skills and weak background in media consumption are failing…I can’t think of a Black show that centers around office or workplace relationships. Churches, though? Yes. Amen’s Raleigh is still my favorite deacon. But workplaces? Sparks, The Wayans. Bros., Empire…those are still founded on familial relationships that exist independently of any corporation. (I’m a poor consumer of media, though, so if you’ve got any drop them in the comments.)
An Opinion Assumed Owned
Like I said before, a whole lot of White people considered Kaepernick’s voice owned by a force to which they’ve already bowed their heads — a force which has always been an agent of oppression, inequity, social control, and mistreatment for us. A force, though, that also serves them in the form of higher compensation for the same work done, and higher chances of being called in for an interview by virtue of their names. They can access it as employees themselves and leverage against us (because racism), or even just as patrons when asking to speak to a manager (a weapon even wielded against White, assumed lower class, people.) They were, after all “told by AppleCare.”
I’ve heard White executives scoff at an Indian woman’s unwillingness to leave her village despite her stellar talent as a manager. I’ve heard them laugh at the idea of younger workers seeking work-life balance. The power of, and deference to and employer and work is simply something that is not questioned within Mainstream/White culture.
This is why it seems like every other day we see another senseless think piece on Millennials destroying another tenet of American society — in many ways they actually are. Even their (White Millennials’) voicing dissatisfaction and slight movement away from the traditional employer relationship is a threat to the core of the modern American experience. (They’re only stepping away so far though…even if the cues they get now are more about cold brew coffee, open office plans, and co-working spaces, work is still the foundation of much of their social interaction.)
This is why health insurance divorced from an employer (Obamacare) frightens so many people so deeply. Of course, many people ignore valid criticisms and irrationally hate the Affordable Care Act because it came to fruition under a Black president, but they also fear it because it means the Employer — that guardian of the day-to-day practice of American values — loses significant leverage.
This is why they, people who’ve never done a veteran honor beyond thanking them for their service, are so viscerally upset. At some level, they believe their simply being affiliated with an organization that pays you means you owe them as individuals a deference of opinion, expression, and life choices.
Employment is the structuring of power and control around labor transactions — one that many practically believe supersedes constitutional rights (and yes, unlike many others who have spoken up and simply been fired for being racist, Kaepernick’s 1st amendment rights were violated the second the San Francisco police union spoke up, and especially once they, as an arm of a government entity, threatened to break their relationship with his employer.)
A Personal Offense
Just remember, those of us in the West were not brought here to dance, sing, sport, or fill church pews. We were brought here for our unquestioned and under compensated work. Crossing that line is possibly the greatest offense to White supremacy Kaepernick, or anyone can make.
Jobs aren’t just about production or merit and most employers expect more than what is stated outright. Workplaces are environments and cultural strongholds that likely mean something very different to you than they do to many of your coworkers.