You remember: Barack Obama won the presidency, everyone was feeling all bloated with hope and the images of the Civil Rights era took on a shiny new hue, on the way from legend to prophecy. Eulogies for the recently deceased specter of racism met no sarcasm or derision; token blacks and browns everywhere suddenly, unimaginably belonged, like a stumble that becomes a part of a dance. We frolicked for a moment in the utopic playground of Post-Race America, where no one could see or respond to race because we were, you know, over it. But now we’re over being over it; Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin have seen to that. We live in post-Post-Race-America, where we lie in wait for a chance to catch-a-racist-by-the-toe, knowing both intuitively and misguidedly that the best protection against being labeled a racist is to label somebody else a racist first. We do it well; we’ve read some books and we watch both Bill Maher and The Daily Show. We were ready for the Adventures of Oprah in Switzerland and we were ready to pull the race card on her race card when the saleslady cried foul.
And we’re ready for someone like Colin Kaepernick, whose racial-cultural background has wound its way into more than a few compelling water-cooler chats. There are many reasons to talk about the 25-year-old starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. First and least controversial among them is this Sunday’s much-anticipated game against the other half of the newest of the great football rivalries , the Seattle Seahawks. With an injury-free preseason and a Week 1 win safely behind him, Kaepernick is officially poised to dazzle both fans and fantasy-owners as he leads his Niners through the regular season. Amid breathless reports that San Francisco coaches have every reason to renegotiate Kaep’s contract at the start of the 2014 season, it’s finally time to find out if Colin Kaepernick can live up to the hype.
And yet, somehow, that’s only half the story. Colin Kaepernick’s status as one of the NFL’s rising stars is due not just to the hype related to his potential as one of the league’s next best quarterbacks, but also to the gossipy phenomena that surround not Kaepernick the athlete, but Colin the man. As recent photo spreads on newsstands in GQ and ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue suggest (along with the resulting options you get when you Google “Colin Kaepernick Tumblr”), that man is the kind of man who has the kind of body women want to see more of. And as recent controversies in the media have shown, that body boasts the kinds of tattoos some people feel some type of way about .
The beautiful thing about a Colin Kaepernick is that the attraction we feel as consumers to his celebrity gets complicated with the ways we see the world, ourselves and everyone else in it. Sometimes the thing everybody’s talking about is exactly the thing we need to talk about. But, when that thing is race, we seem to have a hard time getting beyond pointing fingers and isolating ourselves from people who don’t share our views.
Especially in post-Post-Race-America.
Stanford law professors Ralph Richard Banks and Richard Thompson Ford, writing about unconscious race bias, describe a shift after the Civil Rights Movement in which conscious race bias effectively moved underground, in step with an increasing “moral condemnation” of racist and prejudicial attitudes and behaviors. For me this connects to the failed state of Post-Race America. Failed because of what Banks and Ford’s work suggests, which is that the people who feel they have the most to lose from appearing biased will make a more conscious effort to hide it.
And from what I can tell, the strain of that effort makes a jumpy trigger finger. When you see a racist around every corner, you might want to double-check to make sure you’re not in a hall of mirrors.
In this climate, it should not be a surprise to discover that when people write about Kaepernick, they at least touch on, if not outright discuss, his racial identity. The public discourse of post-Post-Race America is a Wild West of sorts, complete with a land grab across a muddied plain, where everyone, regardless of race, is seeking to articulate some newly discovered ground, to stake a claim and announce to the world: “No, I’m the one who gets it!”
And before you get all troll-y on me and start calling me names on Twitter, allow me to implicate myself: I am very well aware that I, too, suffer under the delusion that I have at least one finger—or maybe just a pinky toe—on the race-pulse of America.
To get a better picture of post-Post-Race-America, let’s take a bird’s eye view of the controversy that started when Sporting News writer David Whitley wrote a column criticizing the omnipresence of black ink on Kaepernick’s body, on the grounds that it soils the image of the great American quarterback with a little too much of “Who’sWho on Cell-block Four.” From Whitley we get at least a clearly racially coded (of his own horror: “It’s not just a white thing, I hope”), if not actually (and perhaps accidentally) racist column. And then, as is natural in post-Post-Race America, the writers of Team Kaep’ weighed in to happily excoriate Whitley in the name of defending Kaepernick -as-magical-negro, displaying their newly acquired uber-progressive capacity to recognize and deconstruct undercover (and perhaps imagined) racist frameworks: “Why, some of his best children are black!” At least one Whitley defender chimes in, making the claim that Whitley suffers from age bias, not race bias, as if each of us is allowed just one bias per life and are perfectly fair and balanced in every other respect. There’s even a middle-of-the-road-er , who is ready to make a distinction between someone being a racist and someone like Whitley being racialized by his own experience and making comments that are both offensive and in line with integrity to that experience and the beliefs it yields.
And so, our post-Post-Race-American landscape stretches out before us: Everyone agrees that there are ways to talk about race and ways not to. Everyone agrees that someone is doing a really bad job of talking about race, and perhaps even has the hubris to assume that they are doing a much better job.
Is there a silver lining here? In an attempt to find one, I’d like to offer up a few observations: We are comfortable talking about conscious bias because it is never our own;e are comfortable talking about unconscious bias as long as we are certain it is not our own;e are ultimately unable to hide our unconscious bias because we are what we eat.
And this is not a bad thing.
Maybe one day, we’ll be able to turn to a friend after an awkwardly raced moment and simply say, like DJ Jay Smooth suggests, “ Hey, there’s something racist in your teeth,” and everything will still be copacetic.
You know what? I’d like to propose a toast: to post-post-Post-Race-America, where we are now invited to freely move about the cabin and talk about race, to talk about what we see and even to talk about Colin Kaepernick, freely, without fear of rebuttal. Not because we don’t expect one, but because we don’t fear rebuttal. It’s where, instead of ending a conversation at agree-to-disagree, we might begin one. We are allowed to change our minds. Grow a little from time to time. Maybe even get to the bottom of it. A hall of mirrors is a pretty good place to begin the business of seeing yourself as you really are.