From the Desk of Munene Mwaniki: Holding a Mirror to White Supremacy

The following is a contribution from Munene Franjo Mwaniki, author of The Black Migrant Athlete: Media, Race, and the Diaspora in Sports (September 2017). Mwaniki is an assistant professor of sociology at Western Carolina University. 

When I started this project I had fears that the subject matter would become irrelevant before I could even publish my findings. While it seems naïve now, I also would not have thought that the United States would be in its current political situation with regards to race when the book was eventually published. I do not know how well my findings will stand the test of time, but I wanted to give readers a fairly comprehensive argument as to the nuances of how white supremacy manipulates blackness for its own ends. In many ways the election of Donald Trump (or, as American Sociological Association president Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has remarked, Donaldo Trumpo) served to validate one of my core findings. Despite their efforts to ignore and integrate into western societies, black (im)migrants inevitably face the racist oppression that native blacks know all too well. Hence for Barack Obama, a second-generation immigrant on his father’s side, doing everything “right” as a black man still was not good enough; a man who built a political career on questioning the competency, qualifications and legitimacy of Obama now succeeds him.

I was finishing up writing the conclusion to the book when Trump was elected and inaugurated. The event did not help me complete the task. I was already feeling that the problems I addressed in the book were intractable and the overt racism that was on display during the election and, subsequently, in recent months, could not help but to feel like a step backward. It also made watching sport more and more difficult. Outlets like ESPN have provided a Trump-like “many sides” (all being equal) approach to issues of race and racism, in particular concerning the ongoing NFL blackballing of Colin Kaepernick and the public censuring of Jamele Hill. That white supremacy is indeed difficult for the powers that be to call out is nothing new, yet the fierce insistence that we should ignore it when it is blatantly in our faces is absurd. What Kaepernick and Hill demonstrate is the ongoing vulnerability of blackness.

For Kaepernick, black men are often told what they need to do to succeed in America and, like Obama, Kaepernick embodies those qualities except for his protest and political views. The moral hypocrisy of Kaepernick’s exclusion from the NFL is stunning but perhaps not surprising for a league with one of the most conservative ownership circles in all of professional sports. For Hill, she was not the first person to call this president a white supremacist and yet she has become the sole focal point for the apparent unacceptability of doing so. As a black woman, Hill demonstrates the acceptability with which casual sports fans, the current presidential administration, and society in general direct their anger at women of color when other targets are also available. Her words are made to fit into the easy racist narrative that it is “the blacks” who are the real racists.

The fact of the matter is that these instances demonstrate the power of white supremacy. In my book I often discuss how it creates impossible and inhuman expectations for people of color while holding itself to little account. Thus black men and women, foreign or native, must be upstanding citizens who conform to the expectations/discipline of whiteness or they soon fall into stereotypical (criminal) understandings of blackness. Leagues like the NFL and television networks like ESPN can deal with criminalized blackness as, even though they decry it, they actively profit from it. In their minds, criminality in waiting is what blackness is anyway. What they cannot deal with is a non-conforming non-criminal dissenter who holds up a mirror to their lies.