An American Dream: Policing patriotism of black athletesBy Amanda Bennett | 08/29/2016 1:26am
To put it lightly, black Americans killed it at the Rio Olympics. However, controversy surrounding Gabby Douglas’ decision not to place her hand over her heart and San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, refusing to stand during the national anthem raised questions not only about their alleged “patriotism,” but also opened up conversations about just how much control even the most elite black athletes have over their own bodies.
While Douglas and Kaepernick’s actions had seemingly different motivations, the public response to both scenarios allows us to look at the role that black athletes are able to play in confronting white supremacy and questioning the racial past, present and future of the country that they have chosen to represent.
Just to set the lay of the land, critics of Douglas and Kaepernick are, quite simply, wrong. If one does choose to adhere to certain rituals of American patriotism, that’s perfectly fine. Just as the 49ers stated in a press release defending Kaepernick’s actions, one’s right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion makes adhering to certain shows of patriotism non-mandatory.
Now we can examine the real reasons why the often-unjustified labels of “unpatriotic” or “un-American” are so quickly applied to individuals such as black athletes, black soldiers or any other group of black people representing the U.S. White people biologically cannot specifically take credit for or appropriate the success of black athletes. They can, however, employ, recruit and commodify black athletes in order to generate huge sums of money and entertainment in the form of televised sporting events.
However, this rigid schedule of generating wealth and televising sports requires a certain degree of obedience from professional black athletes. How do you turn the entity that America fears most into some of America’s greatest pastimes? You cannot physically alter the appearance of black athletes to look ... well ... less black. But, you can police the blackness out of their actions and public beliefs to the point where even the most fearsome of black athletes appear innocuous to the silent majority. To even appear palatable to white sports viewers, black athletes are expected to hold themselves to a level of decorum, patriotism and conformity that many white professional athletes do not even attempt to achieve.
What is the purpose of a black athlete then, particularly within the racial landscape of 2016? Does the black athlete exist only to entertain, living within an insulating bubble of wealth, privilege and (fleeting) public adoration? Or do black athletes possess the ability to represent something far more complex, serving as examples of black people reclaiming stereotypes of blackness being tied to superior athletic ability and using their singularly public platforms to take a stand on issues of black oppression?
Amanda Bennett is a graduate student studying English.