What an Insecure Subplot Can Reveal about Colin Kaepernick and Black NFL Coaches
One of the more intriguing subplots in season one of the HBO show Insecure was the work relationship between Molly and Rasheeda, two Black attorneys at a prominent Los Angeles law firm. Molly, the senior of the two, has perfected the art of code switching. The way she acts around her White colleagues is completely different than the way she does with her Black girlfriends. Rasheeda, on the other hand, is a recently hired intern who either hasn’t developed those code-switching skill or refuses to play that game in the White workplace. As a result, Rasheeda’s boisterous presence is distracting and potentially risky to Molly’s employment. So Molly decides to talk to Rasheeda directly about it.
I began this article about Colin Kaepernick with an Insecure reference because I wanted to cover an aspect of his protest/blackballing that I haven’t seen expressed. We’ve heard opinions on Kaepernick from every NFL stakeholder: White owners, Black players, media, fans, the President, etc. But too my knowledge, we haven’t heard from one group.
How come we haven’t heard anything from the Black coaches of the NFL?
During the 2017 football season, there were seven Black football coaches: Jim Caldwell (Lions), Marvin Lewis (Bengals), Hue Jackson (Browns), Todd Bowles (Jets), Mike Tomlin (Steelers), Anthony Lynn (Chargers), Vance Joseph (Broncos). As far as I can tell, none of these men made public comments in support of Colin Kaepernick and none of them signed him, of course. But it wasn’t as if these teams didn’t need a quarterback. Combined, these seven coaches went 48-64 (including the Brown’s embarrassing no win season) and four of these coaches benched their starting quarterbacks during the season because of bad play.
Now, I’m not giving you all this information to say that the Black coaches are horrible people for not signing Kaepernick. Rather, I’m using these stats to illuminate the fact that many of them could have used a quarterback who in 2016 had a quarterback rating of 90.7 (17th best in a 32 team league). Many of them could have used a quarterback that led his team within a couple minutes of a Superbowl championship. So why didn’t the coaches that would most be able to empathize and defend Kaepernick joining their team decline to even mention him publicly? Probably because they don’t want the stress being the “good negro” that is ultimately held responsible for the actions of the “bad negro.”
Every Black person that has operated in a White space knows the feeling of being White people’s proxy for dealing with issues of race. I’ve been asked countless times, “How do Black people feel about…” or “Why do Black people…” Other than the fact that it’s annoying to represent a whole group of people by myself, it’s also implausible for me to do so. The Black community is just as diverse and opinionated in worldviews as the White community. It would be foolish of me to ask how White people feel about abortion because the answer is they feel ALL the ways there are to feel about abortion. Each individual has their own unique perspective on the matter.
This dynamic becomes trickier when you have multiple Black people in a specific White workplace. In this case, if often happens that one Black person, usually the highest ranking one, often becomes the representative for all the Black employees to management. This is especially true when issues connected to race pop up. Often, you’re tasked with summarizing the complex thoughts of other people when the best course of action would be to just let people speak for themselves.
Let’s put this in the NFL context. Imagine that you are an NFL coach. Not only are you the middle manager between ownership and players, but you also serve as a main representative of the team to the media and fans. Think about all the responsibilities that entails. Coaches already must deal with game planning, managing player egos, running practices and a thousand other responsibilities. Why would any coach want to bring a distraction of Kaepernick into the fold? And why would a Black coach want to assume the additional responsibility of being the most accessible mouthpiece to Kaepernick’s thoughts and feelings to the media since he has the same skin color?
These were some of the thoughts and feelings that Molly had when seeing the actions of Rasheeda in the law firm. She asked herself, how will the actions of this Black employee, who doesn’t conform to the culture of this White working space, affect the perception of me around the company? Will colleagues not treat me with the same amount of respect since they can talk to the other Black girl so informally? If she acts in a way that does not fit into the workplace’s culture, will I be held responsible?
That is why Molly calls Rasheeda into her office to talk to her about how she presents herself. After skirting around the issue for a while, Molly eventually tells Rashida, “If you want to be successful here, you’ve got to know when to switch it up a little bit.” Basically, she’s telling her to tone down the “Blackness” to which Rasheeda refuses, explaining that she has gotten this far with her “Blackness”, but thanks for the feedback.
Is Molly right or wrong for doing this? I can’t tell you, but I can say that by removing the racial element from the workplace, Molly is undoubtedly doing what she thinks is the best thing for both of their careers at that company.
In Insecure, part of Molly’s frustration is that she had no say in the hiring of Black employees like Rasheeda. Obviously if she did, she would have had the code-switching conversation in a much less contentious situation. Unlike Molly, NFL coaches DO have a say in what players come in and out of an organization, so the players on the team are very much a reflection of the type of people the coach values. As a Black coach, bringing a “Rasheeda”, like Colin Kaepernick, onto your team comes with a whole set of issues and expectations that complicate the already difficult task of being an NFL head coach. Any good coach would try to avoid a situation that would pull attention away from what’s happening on the field.
In addition, 4 of the 7 Black head coaches had losing records in 2016. The last thing you want as losing coach is a lightning rod on your team like Kaepernick that puts more scrutiny on you to win. At the end of the day, it’s unfortunate for both parties because at least 4 of the coaches could have used Kaepernick at some point in the season and obviously Kaepernick didn’t have the benefit of playing at all, especially not with a coach that would have understood and defended his cause.
Later on in the season of Insecure, one of the senior partners comes to talk to Molly about Rasheeda. She begins, “A few of the other partners and I have noticed that … she’s not quite adjusting to the culture here, like some of her fellow interns. And we just feel like it would be great for YOU to have a chat with her, because it wasn’t so long ago that you were a summer associate.”
I could honestly write a full piece on the subtext of those words alone but all you need to know is that by the end of the episode Rasheeda is fired when Molly suggests (validly) that the conversation would carry more weight coming from one of the partners rather than her. As we know with the Kaepernick situation, he was cut from the 49ers after the 2016 season and wasn’t picked up by any team in 2017. It’s a sad fact that being unapologetically Black in a White workplace makes you unemployable. This is a fact that Molly and NFL coaches of the world know too clearly.
When trying to dismantle a system, is it better to rage at it from the outside and not follow its rules? Or is it more effective to integrate into the system and change it from the inside? When it comes to race, this question is as old as slavery itself.
I’m not mad at the Black NFL coaches for not signing Colin Kaepernick because they are doing what’s best for their job security. And the more Black people there are in positions of power anywhere, the better it is for the culture. It’s just sad that for many people of color, success in the workplace and being their authentic selves are mutually exclusive propositions. I just wish Black people didn’t have to work in environments that made them feel so Insecure.