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Colin Kaepernick was honored at the ACLU SoCal Hosts Annual Bill of Rights Dinner in December 2017.
Colin Kaepernick was honored at the ACLU SoCal Hosts Annual Bill of Rights Dinner in December 2017.
Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

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Colin Kaepernick’s Clothes Do the Talking for Him

The quarterback-turned-activist is wearing his blackness on his sleeve.

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“Is Colin Kaepernick the most stylish man in the NFL?”

GQ posed that question in 2014, praising the then-San Francisco 49er for his tailored trousers, trim peacoats, and knack for texture and style. The magazine posted a slideshow featuring the quarterback wearing posh brands like Sandro, Christian Louboutin, and Acne.

Despite his hyper-masculine profession, Kaepernick embraced the fashion-lover label. The next June, he chatted with Women’s Wear Daily about his 500-pair shoe collection and fellow footballer Victor Cruz’s Givenchy campaign. He praised Cruz’s “clean-cut” look and their mutual stylist, Rachel Johnson.

But by October 2015, Kaepernick was complicating his discussion of fashion. How he presented himself, he said, wasn’t just about looking good, but also a reflection of his ties to black culture.

Colin Kaepernick at the 2014 NFL Honors
Kaepernick at the 2014 NFL Honors.
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

“My racial heritage is something I want people to be well aware of,” the biracial athlete told Mr Porter. “I do want to be a representative of the African community, and I want to hold myself and dress myself in a way that reflects that. I want black kids to see me and think: ‘Okay, he’s carrying himself as a black man, and that’s how a black man should carry himself.’”

His words ring especially true after he kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to highlight racialized police violence. He’s paid dearly for taking a knee. Despite a resume that includes leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013, Kaepernick remains unsigned after opting out of his contract with the team in March to become a free agent (he reportedly would’ve been cut otherwise). But his predicament may change. He recently trended on Twitter for expressing interest in buying the Carolina Panthers with a group of investors, among them Steph Curry and Sean “Diddy” Combs, who promised to get Kaep on the field again should they pull off the feat.

Kaepernick’s activism has also led to attacks, including from President Trump, on his character, family, and racial identity. Through it all, the 30-year-old has responded by draping himself in clothing that amplifies his political views. Rather than tone down his style, as some have suggested, he’s made sartorial choices that leave no doubt he’s wearing his blackness on his sleeve.

In November, Kaepernick graced the cover of GQ as its 2017 citizen of the year. He declined to be interviewed for the honor. In fact, for years, Kaepernick has either said little to the media or nothing at all. In September, the New York Times published a lengthy profile on Kaepernick, but the quarterback refused to speak to the paper of record for the article. Representatives for Kaepernick also did not respond to Racked’s interview request for this piece. Giving the media the silent treatment means that the athlete’s attire is now one of his primary forms of public expression.

Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick, and Eric Reid kneel in protest during a 2016 NFL game
Eli Harold, Kaepernick, and Eric Reid kneel in protest during a 2016 NFL game.
Photo: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In the GQ photo spread, Kaepernick looks like an icon. A glorious afro encircling his face, he appears on the cover in a black turtleneck, blazer, and gold pendant necklace. The hair and the ensemble invite comparisons to the Black Panther Party’s signature look; he was just missing the black beret. And on social media, fans saw in him another African American hero from the ’70s: blaxploitation character Shaft. Inside the magazine, Kaepernick stands with a crowd of black children in Harlem, sporting cornrows and a dashiki. The photo calls to mind Muhammad Ali, who nearly lost his boxing career for refusing to serve in Vietnam, in front of a crowd in Zaire in 1974. At that time, African Americans regarded the dashiki and the Black Panther uniform as symbols of resistance. And they still do: Beyoncé, also vocal about extrajudicial killings of blacks, wore a racy version of the uniform when she performed at the Super Bowl in 2016. Black Lives Matter activists have put their own twist on the outfit, and their supporters can be seen in dashikis at demonstrations. GQ noted that Kaepernick’s dashiki, from Ghana, belonged to him.

That wardrobe choice wasn’t his only mark on the photo spread. According to his stylist, Johnson, he requested to wear black designers for the shoot, a decision that put the spotlight on Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo, Harlem Haberdashery’s Guy and Shay Wood, and Pyer Moss’s Kerby Jean-Raymond. In essence, he used fashion to communicate the industry’s pervasive whiteness without publicly uttering a word.

The thought Kaepernick gives to his image was also apparent in early December when he accepted Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, fittingly, from Beyoncé. Dressed in a black shirt and suit, he again seemed to be paying homage to the Black Panthers. For more casual affairs, he’s worn T-shirts bearing the group’s emblem and of leader Huey P. Newton. (His Know Your Rights camp has provided kids with free breakfasts, just as the Panthers did.) Kaepernick’s clothing and hairstyles not only defy the (unsolicited) advice to cut his afro, skip the cornrows, and “just go clean cut,” they serve as a wordless rebuke to the critics bent on minimizing his blackness.

Since Kaepernick staged his first public protest of police brutality, public figures have criticized the fact that he’s a biracial man from a white adoptive family. NFL commentator and former player Rodney Harrison outright said that Kaepernick is not black (he apologized after a backlash). And Fox Sports personality Jason Whitlock brought up Kaepernick’s mixed heritage and upbringing in a white suburban household to suggest that he’s not black enough — as if one even needs to be black to object to law enforcement’s disproportionate killings of African Americans.

@gq #citizenoftheyear #manoftheyear physical copies out tomorrow

A post shared by colin kaepernick (@kaepernick7) on

While Kaepernick’s hair, dashiki, Panther tributes, and politically charged T-shirts send the message that, yes, he’s unequivocally black, so do his lived experiences. Growing up the sole brown boy in a white family, he routinely endured racial micro-aggressions. Many transracial adoptees, biracial children, or kids with stepparents who don’t share their racial background have found themselves in similar situations. Malcolm X, another inspiration to Kaepernick, recognized that mixed-race people who’ve lived among whites are especially outraged by anti-black racism because they’ve been intimately exposed to it.

“I will tell you that, without any question, the most bitter anti-white diatribes that I have ever heard have come from ‘passing’ Negroes, living as whites, among whites, exposed every day to what white people say among themselves regarding Negroes — things that a recognized Negro never would hear,” he wrote in Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Of course Kaepernick cannot pass for white, but his upbringing in a white enclave and later initiation into the black community most likely gave him a unique lens through which to view race relations. Moreover, as a quarterback, a position that’s historically been deemed too cerebral for black players, Kaepernick has encountered covert and overt racism. In November 2012, just a few weeks after Kaepernick became the 49ers’s starting quarterback, Sporting News columnist David Whitley likened him to a prison inmate simply because of his tattoos (many of which are Bible verses). Readers rightfully questioned whether the columnist would have been so quick to associate a white tattooed player with the criminal justice system.

Years before he took a knee during the national anthem, Kaepernick told Mr Porter that he considered many of the comments about the type of a quarterback he is to be racially coded. But such comments also marked a turning point for him. The more outsiders tried to label him, the more interested he became in fashion labels — especially high-end ones from Europe. To represent himself well as a black man, he decided that clean lines and balance in his outfits were key, with one standout piece to make his looks “pop.”

His fashion goal back in 2015?

“I don’t want something I wear to scream at people when I walk into a room, but I also don’t want to blend in with the wall,” he told Mr Porter.

Now, all of his looks scream at people. His shirts declare, “Know Your Rights.” His monochromatic ensembles announce his admiration for black radicals, and his afro broadcasts his heritage in a way that his once close-cropped curls never could. In a society so racist it has vilified him for protesting police killings more than athletes who batter, rape, or murder, Kaepernick is saying it loud: He’s black and he’s proud.

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