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Colin and the Kids

How a father explains Colin Kaepernick, identity, and controversy to his biracial sons

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two days ago, I got a message. It was from a person I’d never met in real life but have corresponded with on the internet, which is how far too many of my relationships can be described now. He asked me what I thought about Rodney Harrison saying the thing that he said about Colin Kaepernick.

Harrison, a black retired NFL player with impeccable teeth who is on television regularly, described Kaepernick, a biracial current NFL quarterback who is on TV less frequently, as “not black.” He said it as part of an answer during a sports radio morning show in response to being asked about Kaepernick sitting during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which Kaepernick did to protest recent injustices perpetrated against people of color. Harrison was essentially questioning the validity of the protest, which is problematic for any number of reasons.

I didn’t know any of this at the time, though, so I asked the person who messaged me to explain what had happened when Harrison addressed Kaepernick, and so he did, and so I responded with something like, “That’s dumb.” The person then explained that he was curious to know how I felt about the situation because he knew that I have children who are biracial, and so he thought maybe I had a personal connection to the controversy. I said something like, “Oh fuck. I didn’t even think of that,” because I hadn’t, because I am dumb. Then I continued: “I thought you were just asking me to ask me,” because I did, because I am egotistical. And he responded with, “You’re an idiot and a doofus.”

That’s not literally what he said — what he said was, “haha” — but still, that’s what I felt.

Of my three sons, two of them — the 9-year-old twins — have begun to think about race. The first time it happened it was indirect. This was about four years ago. The boys came home from school, and one of them, Boy A, was especially excited because he said he’d met a kid who “had hair like mine.” (Boy A and his brother go to a predominantly white elementary school. Last year, when he and his brother were in the third grade, they were two of something like 10–12 kids in their entire grade level who were either Latino, black, or some combination of both.) I asked Boy A what he meant. He said that most of the kids had “yellow” hair, and I made sure not to laugh. Then he said that the boy he’d met, a kid on the playground, had black hair that was very curly. He was happy about it, and I was happy for him. I didn’t think too much about it beyond that moment, though I suspect now that I should have. I’m not sure if he thought about it more either. I know he didn’t say anything else to me about it, but I also know that not saying something isn’t the same as not feeling something. So who’s to say?

I should’ve asked him more about it, probably.

The elementary, middle school, and high school that I went to were all overwhelmingly Latino. I never had to know what it felt like to look around a room and not see someone like me in it. I imagine it’s not that easy. My wife, who is black, went to a school where she was one of just a few kids who weren’t white, and she certainly felt a way about it. I definitely should’ve asked Boy A more about it. Sometimes being a dad is hard, even when it seems obvious that it shouldn’t be.

Literally four houses down the block from where I live is an elementary school. It’s not the elementary school my sons go to, though. They were accepted into a magnet program, which allows for kids in certain areas of town to attend schools in other areas of town. In our case, we drive past the elementary school by our house, which is populated mostly by black and Latino kids, and 15 minutes later we are in front of the boys’ school, a school that has better facilities, better utilities, a more successful faculty, and a decidedly lighter hue to its class group photos.

This summer was the second time the boys talked to me about race. It was far more direct. Both of them told me that they wanted to go to a school with “more brown people in it.” This, I suspect, was a result of attending summer school. Despite the fact that it was made up of students from their school, zero percent of the kids in the third-grade summer school program were white. Their entire summer school class was made up of minorities. It looked like a different school when I picked them during the summer than it did when I picked them up during the school year.

I talked to the boys about Kaepernick. It seemed like a good idea to have that conversation (after a stranger from the internet correctly implied that I should have that conversation). We were all sitting at dinner — it was me, my wife, the Baby, and Boy A and Boy B. I said, “Hey, pickleheads” — because I call them pickleheads — “let me ask you something.”

I started explaining the situation. I told them about Kaepernick being an NFL quarterback, about him being biracial like them, about him choosing not to stand during the national anthem, about how he was choosing to use his platform to try to advance a conversation about race in America that can, at certain times, be uncomfortable, but is, in most nearly every situation, vital. I explained how him doing so in a sport where it doesn’t happen very often is making people uncomfortable. I explained how those moments are more valuable than most any actual sports moment, and I explained what Rodney Harrison said. I explained it all as best I could, so that a 9-year-old could understand, which, it turns out, is not all that different than how you might explain it to a 19-year-old, or a 49-year-old. After I finished, but before I asked them about Kap, I asked them about themselves, and their race. Or their races, as it were.

I said, “Do you know what race means? What race am I?” Boy B said, “Mexican.” I said, “Do you know what race your mama is?” Boy A said, “Yes, she’s North American,” and in my head I said, “Goddamnit,” but then out loud Boy B said, “She’s black,” and then Boy A said, “Oh, right. That’s right. You’re right,” and I felt better. I asked them how they identified themselves, about whether they consider themselves black or Mexican. Boy B said, “Well, our faces are like a Mexican’s, but our hair is like a black person. So that makes us Mexican and black,” and, I mean, it’s flawed logic, but he ends up in the right place so I’ma count that as an insightful moment for him. I said, “OK, let’s pretend that you’re filling out a paper and it asks you for your race and you can only fill in one thing. What are you going to put in that blank?” They thought about it for a moment. Then Boy A said, “It depends on what I’m wearing,” which I thought was a truly interesting response, but when I asked him to clarify, he just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know, which was less interesting.

Boy B said if he’s with just me then he says he’s Mexican because “you call us little Mexicans, like, ‘Come on, little Mexicans,’ when it’s time to leave. If I’m with with mama, then black.” I wasn’t sure if they were ready to talk about code switching, another thing I’m sure they’re going to have to figure out as they get older, but I didn’t get the chance to ask because the Baby, who is about to be 4, said, “Daddy, you didn’t ask me,” and he was right. I said, “OK. What do you want me to ask you?” He said, “Just ask me.” So I said, “I can’t stand you” in my head, but with my mouth, I said, “What race do you think you are?” To which he responded, “Daddy, I saw a witch at the mall today,” and I could feel the conversation falling apart.

The boys and my wife and I talked more about Kaepernick, and the boys were both in agreement: What he did with the not standing for the national anthem was OK (“He didn’t think he was being treated fair so he did it. I think that’s good. You have to say something when you’re mad.”) and what Harrison said was not OK (“I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s wrong.”). Talking to kids about race is hard, but not really, you know what I’m saying?

A thing that happened during our talk that I did not expect was me getting nervous when I asked them if they felt it was OK for Kaepernick to do what he did and for Harrison to say what he said. All of a sudden I realized the high-stakes nature of the question, because I knew how I felt about the situation (Kaepernick = thumbs up; Harrison = thumbs down), and I knew how my wife felt (the same), and so I wanted them to be aligned with us. I was glad that they were.

It’s a very tricky situation, Kaepernick’s choice. There are layers to peel, big questions that can be drawn out of the situation. It’s easy to get tripped up by all the pieces. To wit: Less than 24 hours after it became news, it had already morphed into a thing about how Kaepernick was possibly anti-military, even though he explicitly explained that wasn’t the case, or the point. Forty-eight hours after that, #VeteransForKaepernick, a social media show of support for Kaepernick from military veterans, became the story line. And then, late Wednesday, came a report from the shadows about how, among a section of NFL executives, according to an even smaller section of invisible NFL executives, Kaepernick is the most disliked player “since Rae Carruth.” But this isn’t that complicated: A guy did a thing because he felt a way and now we are all absorbing it in any meaningful way that we can, or in any ridiculous way that we can.

After dinner was over and the Baby was in his bed, I asked the twins if they still wanted to go to a school with more black and Latino kids. They’d first mentioned it back in June and it’s September now and three months is 100 years to 9-year-olds. Boy B said that he was fine. When I asked him what changed, he said, “I just got used to it. It’s fine now. I’m fine in my school now.”

Then Boy A said that he still wanted to go to school with more black and Latino kids. I asked why and he said, “I just do. We haven’t tried it. I would like to try it.”