American football has been divisive, political almost, as far as its illustrious history goes. Between the initial barring of African American players from playing football to the African American Patriots skipping the visit to the President after their Super Bowl win, football has been suffused through and through with politics.
And so on a fateful September afternoon, it came as no surprise when San Francisco’s beloved home team took to the field and the narrative pivoted to the political. In fact, it wasn’t due to a heated game between the 49ers and their opponents that set off the ire of fans nationwide. Rather, it was the seemingly peculiar act of a star athlete taking a knee.
Colin Kaepernick entered the field determined. Squaring his shoulders, and setting his eyes straight down the field, he lowered his 6 foot 4 frame unabashedly. As the beginning notes of the national anthem enveloped his stature, Kaepernick knelt on one knee and made his stand. A bold statement to some; a transgression to others, it was, nevertheless, an act akin to a swan song. It is especially poignant considering it saw to the premature end of his NFL career.
If Kaepernick’s act seemed like a drop in the ocean, his dismissal from being a quarterback was the crack in the sociopolitical dam. And what a crack it was as it brought about a new wave within the movement against systemic inequality.
In fact, within weeks, a Georgia Tech cheerleader joins the revolution. A speck of bright yellow lighting up in a field of green; Raianna Brown scored the home run with her tribute to Kaepernick as she took a knee as well. It was a solitary act, in a moment of sheer braveness, as she broke away from her yellow-jacket sisters to join Kaepernick. Little did Brown know, but she was to become the leading lady of a movement that will sweep through Twitter. Her tweet with the picture of her kneeling has since racked up 36k retweets, 130k likes, and then some.
But what is this significance? While Kaepernick’s act was only recognised in September this year, he had spent a year, since August 2016, committing to taking a knee during the national anthem. He may have been a solitary act then. But as his teammates joined him to pay respects to African American lives lost in the name of inequality, they are now part of a growing movement. In that moment, no matter their identities, they have transcended past labels and associations to now become part of an ensemble. It is in this collective chorus against systemic inequality, ringing an octave above the dissent that is growing, that struck a chord with people worldwide.
This is Performativity
To kneel while the national anthem plays is a bold statement in itself. In fact, it has polarised debates on the legality of such an act. However, as we watch the argument untangle itself – and as the President calls for Kaepernick’s removal on Twitter – the epicentre of the social ire becomes that much clearer. The most striking element of this movement going viral lies not in the questioning of its legality, but in the execution of the act of kneeling. Specifically, it lies in the seeming deviance of the performed act.
In that defining moment that Kaepernick took a knee, he became a leading man – the poster child – of a new social movement. And later, as his teammates and other sports teams around the world joined his ensemble of taking of knee during the national anthem, the act becomes a performance in itself.
Performativity here is witnessed in the structured behaviour and uniformity of dropping to one knee as the national anthem plays. What we can then glean about social movements is how individuals, no matter their background, shed their identities momentarily as they perform a new role. The replication of the act, and its consequent installation into our socialisation, elevates it to a level of greater social consciousness. We see this is in the growing online traction and the explosion of articles discussing the politics of sports.
While there are different ways to analyse this phenomenon, viewing it through the lens of performativity allows us to debunk a key element that characterises social movements that stand the test of time. And it boils down to the actors in the movement. It is the ensemble whose chorus of voices modulate the key in socio-political discussions. Because more so than anything, this falls under the larger realm of identity politics. These individuals, in their vehemence against systemic inequality, have slipped into a brand new identity to legitimise their narratives.
The Significance of Performativity
If we inspect the roots of taking a knee, it brings us to the Civil Rights Movement when Martin Luther King Jr. knelt during the titular Selma march. It was a statement. Without having to breathe a word, the significance of that act resounded with the crowd in its sole reverence for racial equality. Today, the movement may have changed its tone, but it retains its heart even as generations have come to past. With police brutality taking the forefront of our media consciousness and reinforced by the growing dissent culminating in the Black Lives Matter movement, the gravitas of the act endures.
Renowned professor Marshall McLuhan once highlighted in his titular theory that “the medium is the message”. While McLuhan probably never would have intended for his theory to be adopted with reference to social movements, the consideration of this theory prompts us to recognise that the medium is an important part of the process of delivering the message. When we apply this view to performativity in social movements, what we are led to see is how the human body becomes the medium through which the message against inequality is communicated.
When Martin Luther King Jr. knelt, and later as he marched, he used his physical frame to resist the injustice he felt was doled out to the African Americans. In other words, he used the body as a medium for articulating his message. Visually, it sticks the landing. Beyond his speeches, it’s the pictures of him on his knees and of the iconic Selma march that we still recognise today. When we choose to embody the message with every sinew and fibre of our being, it not only encompasses but it also legitimises the self. It is the translation of thought and experience into the visual, tangible field. And when that is accomplished, we are now able to see the change that we want and truly become it.
Perhaps, one of the biggest and most iconic examples would be the African American Civil Rights Movement. As espoused by American philosopher and academic, Judith Butler, for any action that aims to be subversive it has to “mime and displace its [current] conventions”. When we apply this to the Civil Rights Movement, with its aim to subvert social conventions that inhibited the progression of African Americans, it suggests there is a need to mime and play a role.
And play a role they did.
In the iconic Selma to Montgomery march, women showed up with well-coiffed hair, dressed in tweed, and adorned with pearl necklaces. Men wore their best suits and matched their shoes. And as a collective, they mimed their White American counterparts by dressing up in their Sunday Best. It is easy to dismiss this as an attempt for social approval. But consider the image they conjured. The march, progressive and peaceful, displaced conventions and subverted stereotypes that they were uncouth. And significantly, it communicated a sense of middle-class respectability.
Teasing Out The Final Act
An affront to social class and its implicit norms, we are left to witness and reckon with the power of performativity. It’s an interesting thought but it doesn’t end here. Consider other movements that have performativity intertwined between them. The Umbrella Revolution campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong with their unmistakable umbrellas. The peace sign imprinted on signs, shirts, and bare skins throughout the peace movements in the 60s. And even in the donning of pink knitted beanies as a sign of solidarity during the Women’s March earlier this year.
While they all have different end goals, there is one thing that binds them together. The use of props, fashion, and the human physicality, all points to the underlying performativity of social movements. Perhaps, we can then contend that social movements are, inherently, a performance. Consider how, in certain movements, people show up to shared spaces to march, or rather, to engage in structured behaviour. Does this sound familiar? Because, it shares similarities with the theatrical and the vernacular of performance.
Beyond The Curtain Close
When Kaepernick first knelt, as accounted in his feature with GQ Magazine, he announced that “he wanted to reclaim the narrative of his protest”. And yet Kaepernick values his silence especially as it helps to ease his transition from football legend to social activist. So how does he reconcile his penchant for silence and his duty to represent his people? The answer lies in his choice to let his actions speak above the clamor of detractors for him.
But given that we live in a world increasingly intertwined with social media, silence isn’t necessarily upheld as much. The performative, therefore, starts to seep into the digital sphere. With a single tweet, the picture of Kaepernick’s act became the shot heard (or rather seen) around the world. Indeed, the sphere of our identity has expanded. An interesting view to consider would be how the performance of our identities in the digital arena might just become a gatekeeper for the spread of social movements. Even now, the sharing and retweeting of Kaepernick and Brown kneeling, accompanied with the #TakeAKnee hashtag, have catapulted them to international spotlight.
The audience, as we know it, is expanding. Moving forward, perhaps the performative in social movements will transcend the physical world into the digital space as we become more integrated. And with the extension of technologies, perhaps physical distance will be a thing of the past and we will be able to experience social movements in real time. But for now, as audiences to the growing social movements, our performativity might just mean settling for 280 characters and a myriad of filters to join the ensemble and show our solidarity to the world, as we know it, today.