Colin in Black and White: coming of age in white America

Originally: February 12th
Website Up:March 8th 2023

If you’ve been keeping up with either the National Football League or Donald Trump in the last five years, the name Colin Kaepernick might sound familiar to you. While playing as a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, Kaepernick made news headlines after kneeling during the National Anthem in a protest against police brutality. This action led to both controversy and a movement of athletes following Kaepernick’s example. The news also reached the White House and became the subject of a speech by Donald Trump in Alabama one year later, who commented that he viewed kneeling during the Anthem as an act of disrespect towards the American Flag and that players who did so should be fired. Kaepernick was released from the 49ers in March of 2017, after which he filed a grievance against the NFL for conspiring not to sign him, which was confidentially settled in 2019. Kaepernick has not been signed by any NFL team since, but he has been signed by Netflix for a limited series on his life and his experiences with racism on his road to success. In Colin in Black and White (2021), Kaepernick narrates stories from his high school years, during which he tried to make a name for himself in the realms of Football and Baseball. As it turned out, his talent and great work ethic were not the only denominators that influenced his chance of success; his ethnicity was too. Most importantly, the series shows his experiences of growing up as a Black kid in a white environment that ultimately led him to become an activist. 


In six episodes, Colin in Black and White introduces its audience to themes such as white privilege, the white man’s stamp of approval, and the white beauty standard through Colin’s everyday life. The series uses the approach of show and tell: it explains different manifestations of racism through the narration of Colin Kaepernick himself, as well as showing the moments young Colin (played by Jordan Michael) experiences these forms of racism during his high school years. This approach allows the series to be both direct and confrontational, as well as subtle and suggestive. It really spells out the information the creators of the series want the audience to grasp while also showing how the racism in Colin’s life manifests itself through scenes that are not interrupted by any narration. Instead, the latter scenes allow the audience to have their own realizations about what they are watching. A good example of this is the scene where Colin and his parents are checking in at a hotel in the third episode. Colin is half-White and half-Black and was adopted by two white parents from Wisconsin five months after he was born. As the three of them are standing in the lobby, the (white) manager of the hotel comes up to them, asking if Colin is bothering the couple. Colin’s father jokingly reacts that Colin is indeed bothering them but that they can’t do anything about it because he is their son. The manager of the hotel is very obviously surprised to hear that Colin was adopted, which is something that happens more often throughout the series. During the entire conversation, the manager does not acknowledge Colin nor apologize to him for assuming he was harassing his parents, while she is showering his parents with praise for adopting Colin and doing “the Lord’s work”. She also can’t help but ask what country Colin came from. During this scene, it is made very obvious to the audience how uncomfortable Colin feels in his position and that the hotel manager is bluntly stereotyping him, but it is not explicitly said out loud. The audience can read between the lines in scenes like this one where there is show instead of tell. This scene, among many others throughout the series, also shows another important theme of the series: white oblivion. As the racist hotel manager walks away, Colin’s mother says: “well, she was nice!” Well done, Teresa. 


The more direct, confrontational scenes that are used to introduce different kinds of social theory can be perceived as quite “in your face”. Netflix describes this series as “provocative”, which I think is fitting. I would say it can be placed in a category similar to the famous film and series Dear White People (2014, 2017), even though these titles are still very much different. Colin in Black and White is more of a documentary style and does not use any profanities to make its point clear. If you would ask me which series would be easier to stomach for white people who are unfamiliar with themes such as white privilege and microaggressions, I’m not sure if I would be able to decide. I feel as though Dear White People comes off angrier, but the makers of Colin in Black and White do not shy away from demanding the audience’s attention to face their truth, even if this causes discomfort. They are not afraid to take a painful symbol or comparison, hold it up in clear sight and let the audience simmer in their feelings of shame and horror. It is as though they are saying: “Don’t look away now. Are you seeing this?” The first episode opens with a comparison between football tryouts and the slavery market. Kaepernick tells his audience how during football tryouts, your physique is examined beyond boundaries and without keeping your dignity intact. The screen behind him shows football players standing in line, waiting to be examined. At one point, this line of players comes walking out of the screen and changes into a line of slaves, walking toward the platform on which they will be examined and sold to slaveholders. The interesting thing about this scene is that Kaepernick does not acknowledge or explain the comparison, he just stands and watches. This is exactly what the series does so well: it lets what is happening on the screen speak for itself. Even for people whose knowledge of slavery and racial injustice is limited, the message will be clear. Whether you agree with the comparison or not – all players of all ethnicities are examined after all, and going pro is voluntary – the comparison introduces one of the main themes in young Colin’s journey: he just wants to play football because he enjoys doing so, but he will have to face a system with a clear power dynamic, in which his fate is mostly decided by white people, and his skin color stands in the way of his success. 


The white oblivion mentioned before starts to function as a juxtaposition throughout the episodes, through which the audience watches how Colin starts to realize that he has not inherited his white parents’ privilege. When he is growing older (the series covers all four of his high school years), there is an increasingly clear difference between how people treat him and how the same people treat his parents and his white friends. The audience finds Colin in episode one with the same oblivion towards racism his parents have, but in every episode, we watch him grow more disillusioned with what he thought was his place in this world. As is stated in the series, because Colin has grown up in a white household, he has adopted the same “white privilege audacity” his parents have, but over the years, he starts to realize how people don’t accept him when he’s showing the same behavior as his white best friend. For example, his friend can freely go up to the ‘free ice cream stand’ for a third cup of free ice cream without being frowned upon, while Colin is turned away and scorned for his audacity to ask for more by the same lady. Even worse, Colin cannot stand in the lobby of several hotels in California without being very obviously watched by employees of the hotel. His skin color makes it impossible for him to go into public spaces without being bothered like his parents and friends can.  


What I find really interesting about this series is the way it portrays Colin’s parents. They are a middle-aged, white couple who listen to Christian rock in the car and find every kind of food that has a little spice on it too spicy. On the one hand, as I said before, Colin’s parents are oblivious to the effect Colin’s skin color has on the way other people treat him, to the point that they seem extremely naive and confused in everything they do. When Colin opens up to his mother that the hotel manager I mentioned before made him uncomfortable, she answers that she doesn’t think that was the manager’s intention, and suggests that maybe Colin feels uncomfortable because he does not share his feelings a lot. When Colin is pulled over by a police officer while driving for the first time, the officer pulls his gun on him while Colin is getting his learner’s permit. When the officer drives away, his mom tries to cheer Colin up by saying, “you really dodged a bullet there!”, which is the most non-nuanced thing she could have said. The thing is, it is made really clear throughout the entire series that both Colin’s mom and dad mean well in everything they do. Colin’s mom awkwardly asks her Black coworkers if they know a place she can take her son to get his hair done. She lets him explore Black culture, even though it makes her obviously uncomfortable. Although I definitely think this discomfort is an issue, it does show her heart. I do feel as though Colin’s parents should have stood up for their son more, for example, when his coach forced him to cut off his very short cornrows with the excuse that his hair looks unprofessional. At the same time, you can’t help but love his parents. It’s a very weird dynamic to bear witness to. 


Now, at this point, you might think that Colin in Black and White is not “alluring” to watch for white people unfamiliar with the forms of racial injustice still so prominent in contemporary America; they might feel attacked. I think that might be true for some people, but I want to stress here that the series does not uphold a narrative of “Black people are good, white people are bad, period”. The series does not claim certain actions of people to be wrong without showing exactly the negative or unfair effects they have on young Colin. For example, in the second episode, a new, rich, white freshman called Jordan is picked over Colin to join the Junior Varsity team as their Quarterback, even though the tryouts clearly show that Colin is a much stronger player. At the end of the episode, the following year’s tryouts take place, and Colin outperforms Jordan again. The audience then gets to watch how one of the coaches keeps vouching for Jordan over Colin and tries to convince the other coaches to pick him for the highest team, as Jordan would be the “prototype” (notice this not-so-subtle stereotyping!). Fortunately for Colin, the coach’s arguments do not hold up because they are based on personal prejudices and stereotypes. I think this scene again shows the strength of this series in the sense that the audience watches all the facts play out, and they are not told what they must think about it. Instead, the series just hints at the unfair power dynamic that is taking place. 

There is so much more I could say about Colin in Black and White, but I don’t want to take the intensity away from watching it for yourself. The series is bluntly honest and will probably make you uncomfortable, but it is so worth the watch. If you are an American Studies student (or even if you are not), I’d suggest you take the time to watch it. Watching the entire series only takes three hours in total, so you could watch all of it in one day if you wanted to. The way the series is set up, with both the documentary narrative style and the scenes that follow young Colin, allows it to educate its audience without making it difficult to keep paying attention. It might make you angry, it might make you sad, but it probably will also make you understand why Kaepernick knelt on the football field in 2016. Seeing Colin come of age makes me feel proud that he risked the football career he worked so hard for in order to kneel down for justice.