In the last decade, a new era of social justice protests have taken place, none more controversial than professional athletes kneeling during the national anthem. Started by Colin Kaepernick to protest police brutality aimed at Black Americans and other people of color, the movement has since spread to other professional teams and to high school and college fields nationwide. Now, Kaepernick is bringing new attention to social justice issues for Black Americans in the new Netflix series, “Colin In Black and White,” directed by Ava DuVernay and narrated by Kaepernick. Controversy aside, this series offers a glimpse at Kaepernick’s evolution. From a multi-sport junior high school athlete to 49ers quarterback, this film showcases Kaepernick’s early experiences in life.
Born to a white mother and an unknown African American father, Kaepernick was relinquished for adoption as an infant and adopted by a white couple. The family settled in Turlock, California, where Kaepernick attended largely white middle and high schools.
The film’s introduction to Kaepernick is during his teen years, when, like most teens, Kaepernick longs to fit in. So when a Black classmate encourages him to get his hair braided, Kaepernick models his look after NBA legend Allen Iverson. And the girls take notice.
But the move doesn’t sit well with either Kaepernick’s parents or his coaches. At dinner one night, his parents tell a young Colin to undo and cut his neatly corn-rowed hair or risk being chopped from the school’s baseball team. Clearly baffled by a team rule he’s never heard of, he asks, “why?” They reply, “we wouldn’t tell you this if it wasn’t for your own good.” Heartbroken and nearly in tears, again he asks, “why?” Because, his parents tell Kaepernick, “you look like a thug.”
The series continues to highlight these seemingly small, but ultimately critical moments in Kaepernick’s life when he’s trying to figure out which world he belongs in: the one of his privileged white adoptive parents or the one belonging to the Black face he sees in the mirror each day.
His parents’ struggle to understand that hair for Black people is culture, which is just one small example of the microaggressions and racist experiences Kaepernick faces. Whether short or long, pressed or processed, clean shaven, twisted or corn-rowed, or fried, dyed and laid to the side, for the Black community, hair is its crowning glory.
To her credit, Kaepernick’s mother does two redeeming things. First, she asks Black co-workers to recommend a braiding salon (she loses points for asking if they like basketball!). Second, she takes Colin to a Black barbershop, where she is clearly uncomfortable and again later drives him to the stylist’s house for a touch-up.
These experiences are something transracial adoptees have shared since the 1970s. And while Kaepernick’s parents may have adopted him in the era of “take him home and love him as your own,” by the time Kaepernick enters high school, there is a growing community of transracial adoptees raising concerns about children of color being raised in white homes. Transracial adoptee Rhonda Roorda’s book, “In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Story” is based on hers and other adoptees’ experiences. In 2002, filmmaker Phil Bertelsen produced “Outside Looking In: Transracial Adoption in America.” And there was increasing coverage of transracial adoption issues making headlines in publications like Adoption Today.
Given the growing attention to these issues, it’s difficult to watch Kaepernick’s parents miss the mark in helping their son connect to his culture and in understanding what it means to be biracial in America. By failing to support and instead ask the coaches “why,” Kaepernick’s parents fail the biggest test of all – supporting their child during a crisis.
These episodes are not simply about hair, or race, or culture. Kaepernick connects his personal experiences to the larger racial and social injustice issues Black Americans face daily. As the first season comes to a close, viewers are left wondering what happened to Kaepernick in the next chapter of his life playing college football that helped to spark a controversial movement Americans are still arguing about five years after his knee first hit the field.
For foster and adoptive parents of children of color, learning about their early experiences is critical to understanding how to support their children in culture and connectivity to their communities. For all families, this series showcases the differences between white and Black America that the protests have brought to light over the last few years. It is also about recognizing that while our differences may set us apart, those same differences can also help us appreciate one another for that very uniqueness.
– Reviewed by Valarie Edwards Evans and Kim Phagan-Hansel