The Curious Case of Colin Kaepernick, Kanye West and being black at work

4 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. (Thomas Edison)


The whips and shackles have been transferred from our backs and ankles to our tongues and minds, it seems. The logic of capitalism has made it imperative that each and every one of us makes feeding our families our primary concern. In truth, it seems our only purpose on earth. So when Robert Owen campaigned in England throughout the industrial revolution with the slogan ‘eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,’ he and his socialist contemporaries foresaw a future of toil, interspersed equally with the need for mankind to actually enjoy his existence while he was at it.

Too utopian this was, and the likes of Henry Ford moved swiftly to wipe away the derisory smiles of the working class. Ever since, the working people of this world have been the nail beneath a hammer. But in this post I want to pay particular attention to the plight of the black man in the modern workplace. If the workingman has long been a nail beneath a hammer, a better metaphor for the black man would be an urban daffodil choked in soot powerless to open its petals to the morning sun.


B**** Be Humble

Lets create a fictional workplace. It is 2017 so it is littered with black people. And they are not merely shoe shiners either.

Some occupy fairly important roles across the organization. Some are even at the very zenith. 2017 and looking at the hierarchy of a place of work through the lens of race is archaic, antiquated and dead, some would say. And with some legitimacy too. But bear with me.

How should the black man deport himself? Comport himself? Because I am getting the distinct impression that ‘knowing one’s place’ is alive and kicking like a man too soon fallen over the edges of a fishing trawler. In this workplace the black man is required firstly, to be humble. Very humble. He should know how fortunate he is to be in this position, especially if he speaks an accent acquired from some far-flung corner of the globe. He should adapt and assimilate like an alkali in water (a good place to start would be to acquire a taste for draught beer). He who persists in being himself, the person he is, is quickly ostracized.

Even worse is the black man who is confident. In management speak he is arrogant. All of a sudden, he has a worse attitude than Dickens’ Fagin. Arrogant because he carries his hair nappy; arrogant because he does not seek anyone’s admiration; egotistical because he believes he is damn good at his job; haughty because whilst he respects all, he believes none deserves more respect than he receives. He is now conceited because he possesses unswerving self- confidence.

But this is not a function of race, some will say. This is a mere result of the fact that the workplace, like the family and society’s other hierarchical structures demands loyalty and requires people to play their preconceived roles. I contend, however, that all things being equal, a confident white man or woman is seen as a go-getter, a Gordon Gekko initiative grabbing capitalist. A black man does the same thing and he becomes Kanye West snarling at sweet innocent Taylor Swift at the Grammys. He becomes the dead sport, the guy lacking humor crashing the party.

In a recent poll, ‘only’ 20% of the British population admitted they were prejudiced. Only 20% y’all!


Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick didn’t commit a crime. He didn’t punch his fiancée in the face or try to cover up a murder. He didn’t run a secret dogfighting ring, or violently throw his girlfriend onto a bed of weapons.

No, Kaepernick’s only crime is that he offered an opinion while being black. And for that “heinous act,” NFL owners don’t want any part of him. The lesson boys and girls: being black at work means being grateful and keeping your trap shut!

It’s no secret that NFL fans tend to lean conservative. Demographically, viewers of the NFL tend to be wealthier, whiter, older and more male than America as a whole. That sounds a lot like Trump country to me. It also sounds like the demographics of who is running teams in the league, since all but one franchise is owned by a rich, white man.

This explains why fans and owners don’t mind the distractions caused by saluting soldiers, military fly-overs, short-skirted cheerleaders and magic sex pills, but apparently can’t cope with a black player (evidently well-respected since he was voted team captain by his teammates) silently kneeling before the game even starts.

Which brings me to the boycott of Kaepernick. Despite the fact that Kaepernick is the same age as Michael Vick was when he was released from prison, the former 49ers quarterback still hasn’t been signed by a single NFL team. Owners like New York Giants head John Mara claim they’re afraid of backlash from fans but conveniently overlook Kaepernick is still in the top 50 of jersey sales despite still being a free agent.

The latest to flirt with signing Kaepernick is the Baltimore Ravens. Owner Steve Bisciotti said the team has considered signing Kaepernick, but have concerns about him “ hurting the brand.”

Obviously, this is a telling statement coming from a team where starter Joe Flacco is sidelined with a back injury, and current back-up Ryan Mallett has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in his five-year career. If Bisciotti is so concerned about the Ravens’ “brand,” shouldn’t he care more about winning than whether a player knelt during the national anthem?

This is where you would be mistaken. So often for the black man and woman at work, your value is often not aligned to your level of productivity. It is unrelated to your skills and qualifications. Being clever and good at your job is not enough. You need to know your place. B***ch be humble! Because if youre deemed to be arrogant or above your station, be sure that the powers that be will get their pound of flesh.


Disposable Players

By now, you’ve probably seen more opinions on Colin Kaepernick than you ever thought you needed. Kaepernick, as most people are now aware, refused to stand for the national anthem before last season’s preseason game against the Packers. He later explained his decision to, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour.” He reiterated subsequently that he’d continue to sit during the anthem.

It is only natural that Kaepernick’s stance would engender extensive debate, a story line likely to outlast the typical NFL news cycle. But the long-term significance of Kaepernick’s choice, in an otherwise dreary preseason game, goes beyond whether the QB was right or wrong: It was the rare modern example in which a player willingly utilised sport to highlight societal injustice in contemporary sports’ no-distractions culture.

When a player takes a stand the way Kaepernick did, the tangible impact around the league isn’t just that he pissed off a former Texans backup or some Twitter eggs. It’s that he chipped away at something larger and much more frustrating: sports’ brassbound culture about players (insert: black players at work) speaking their minds.

“I’ll continue to sit. I’m going to stand with the people that are being oppressed,” Kaepernick told reporters. “To me this is something that has to change and when there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent in this country — is representing the way that it’s supposed to — I’ll stand.”

Why don’t more NFL and NBA and Premier League [black] players speak out on social issues? Take a look at the numbers alone, and it seems baffling that similar acts don’t happen often. Because the odds are stacked precipitously against anyone who does.

However, two bits of modern sports culture work strongly against guys like Kaepernick speaking their minds: Players are seen as disposable, and the football and basketball and athletic powers that be have a word that prevents most players from voicing their opinions — trouble.

The first part of that is pretty simple. Players have short career shelf lives and, by and large, are all right with that. 90 players make up a given NFL roster at the start of training camp; that number is whittled to 53 by Week 1. By the time the season officially kicked off on September 8, there were nearly half as many NFL players as there were a month prior. And guys can be cut for any reason, at any time. There are probably less than 50 guys in the league who are not one awful season away from being released from their current deals. That vulnerability keeps players from doing much in the way of activism of which a coach might not approve.

This is a league where weakness and honesty are not embraced, and where toughness and the team are emphasized above all else. Thus, Kaepernick doesn’t have a team. It is obvious he is being frozen out for his political opinions. He is only a high profile example of many a black woman and man at work. Kaepernick is far from alone.


What’s My Worth?

Thinking about self-worth, what constantly came to mind was Kanye rapping “Give me fifty million or I’mma quit” on the eternal summer single “Mercy.” It was easy to picture him storming into the Def Jam office, kicking over the coffee maker, breaking his Louis Vuitton briefcase against the office table, and demanding L.A. Reid show him the money in an unwavering bark. Something about the line didn’t seem far-fetched despite the outrageous amount; he’s the same man rumored to have made the entire Def Jam office adjust their wardrobe from Friday casual to Easter Sunday formal just to preview My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The line always represented how he knew his worth, the worth of his art, and wouldn’t take anything less.

Kanye’s confidence is what I’ve always admired. From my very first impression of him, he seemed as if he had more than most humans, an abundance of overflowing self-assurance. What made him the brash egotist of hip-hop also seemed to be a sturdy shield protecting his innocence in an industry that crushes the weak and exploits the enchanted. From making those five beats a day for three summers to fighting for his chance to be heard as a rapper, his confidence never faltered. There isn’t an instance I can remember where Kanye West didn’t think he would be upheld as a great, if not the greatest.

But being a black man thinking he was the ish meant the inevitable backlash wasn’t far away. As he grew more renowned so did his prolific ego. I can recall hearing chatter about Kanye needing to be humbled, that his narcissism overshadowed his genius, but there isn’t brilliance without the vanity. Ye knew if he was going to talk big he had to deliver big. His inflated self-belief may have been criticized but Kanye never made excuses.

He always stood behind his art and actions. From George Bush to Taylor Swift, he continued to stand before us as the outspoken poet with the aura of a spoiled prince and a voice loud enough to shake the heavens. I didn’t always agree with his actions or antics, but he did everything with an admirable conviction―it’s hard not to believe in the Kanye that believes in Kanye. A belief and conviction that I always hope would burn within when the time called for it.


A New Day

That’s why I see Kanye as an example of the bold, fearless bravery necessary to enter a creative field and truly be respected if you are gifted. You can’t always be quiet. You can’t always ask politely.

I started to view Kanye’s confidence in a new light after recently revisiting “New Day,” one of the deep cuts from the album Watch the Throne. The song was a letter to Ye and Jay’s unborn sons, but hearing Kanye’s verse in 2017 sounded much more like a man speaking in the mirror than one jotting thoughts in a notebook.

He begins with:
And I’ll never let my son have an ego

This line comes from a man who has always worn his ego as a crown with more jewels than the Yeezus mask. I don’t remember being stunned by it years ago, but it’s shocking when isolated and questioned. Why would he not want his son to carry a similar sense of self-esteem or self-importance? You would think Kanye would raise his son like his mother raised him, but in this introspective look into the future, he would rather the junior of his dreams not inherit the prolific ego. From the opening line, he begins to unravel himself.

He goes as far to say that he’s raising his son as a Republican so that white people wouldn’t hate them; so that white employers won’t assume they are arrogant pricks; so that white employers won’t deny them mobility for perceived cockiness.

Watch the Throne happened post-Taylor Swift. I didn’t think he still carried whatever wounds he received from that backlash but it’s apparent that being hated bothered him deeply. It’s a bit sickening to see someone so strong wear an apologist cape, but it’s hard to embrace strength when you society swings a persistent chisel at your muscles. He pleads:

See, I just want him to have an easy life

Not like Yeezy life, just want him to be someone people like

Don’t want him to be hated all the time, judged

Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge


An easy life. Someone who people will like. For someone so outgoing and brash, Kanye wished for the seed that would carry his name to know acceptance and spread kindness. To not be Muhammad Ali. Or Tommy Smith. Or Colin Kaepernick. You can admire a man for his actions, but never experience any of the consequences. The invisible aliens too know what it’s like to draw the ire of the white employer by being “too sure of myself.” What kind of worry does that bring? Well, the kind Kanye wouldn’t want to pass down. It is really hard out here for a brother.


Grounding With My Brothers?

Even more troubling is how other black employees react to this outlier. How do they deal with a man or woman who nominally shares their skin but not their attitudes?

A man that could see them painted with the same brush of enmity. They signed no covenant, pact or treaty with this fellow. Solidarity is but a flowery socialist concept that died with Marx sometime in 1883. They have families to feed. They need their job so an arresting apathy blossoms; unconcern for their fellow man that would make Morgan Stanley and John D Rockefeller applaud.

Most people who can be identified with this era think that had they been alive at the peak of racism (whenever that was), they would have been on the right side of history. Homegrown Jean Paul Satres and Franz Fanons spewing the existentialist blues. Most black people think they would have been bravely articulate and would have rebelled against the injustice around them. And most whites think they would have definitely cut blacks some slack and tried to do the right thing. It is easy to project our heroism into a past invulnerable to revision even as we find it difficult to face our present challenges.

But is this sort of cold indifference that I regularly observe in the workplace the only plausible thing to do? Are there small actions we can take? Well I am extremely petty so when I observe injustice being committed another black person in the workplace, which has nothing at all to do with me, I feel that kinship. I am from Jamaica; a place of tight knit communities and the mosquito carrying that disease of Me, Me, Me has yet to breach my skin. I don’t know, I just care.

I Fraternize with my brethren. Walter Rodney spoke of Grounding With My Brothers and sometimes a word of encouragement is all that is required to keep our spirits up in this jungle of decadence.

What I’m learning is that it is imperative to find that Kanye voice within yourself that’s going to fight passionately for your worth once it’s discovered. Be like Kaepernick and Kanye and never budge unless you absolutely believe it’s worth budging. No one hears the whisper, but everyone hears the yell. A little ego doesn’t harm anyone [unless you’re black?], and a little pride might be the devil’s advocate that will get you the pay (and respect) that you deserve and not what they decide to give.


This Thing Called Humanity

What watching the many phases of Kanye has taught me most is the importance of never losing a sense of self. It’s okay to have confidence broken and the ego bruised, but you can’t lose yourself. Not in love and not in hate, not when they cheer and not when they boo. All the money in the world isn’t worth losing what can’t be bought.

We need our own initiatives and businesses; organizations that will be open and inclusive. I’m not going to simply be a member of the chattering class as I know black people has been suggesting this since those dupes chained our ancestors in the baracoons. The fact is if nobody had ever campaigned for change and a better way of doing things we’d all still be living in caves and choosing a partner by dragging them home by their hair.

What does mankind do when the cries for help are ringing in our ears? At this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is US and requires of us benevolence and responsiveness. Let us represent worthily the cause to which cruel fate has consigned us. Folding our arms and burying our heads in the mud is a discredit to our species. Animals in the jungle that refuse to spring to the help of the helpless, can be sure that one day they’ll be caught in the thickets. Humanity, what are we doing here? Surely, that is the question. The riposte needs to be timely.