"Colin in Black & White" writer on Kaepernick's parents & awakening: "They didn't see him as Black"

Michael Starrbury appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss how he wants to increase awareness of privilege and reality

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 28, 2021 11:00AM (EST)

Colin Kaepernick in "Colin in Black & White" (Ser Baffo/Netflix)
Colin Kaepernick in "Colin in Black & White" (Ser Baffo/Netflix)

Back in 2016, the superstar NFL quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, had become so fed up with racism, police violence against Black and Brown people, and the many injustices woven into the fabric of America, that he decided to begin his own silent protests, by taking a knee during the singing of the National Anthem.

Since then, Kaepernick, 34, has been allegedly blackballed from the NFL, with every team refusing to sign him, even though he is arguably better than half of the quarterbacks in the league. He filed a lawsuit against the NFL for discrimination and won an undisclosed amount of money and then smoothly transitioned toward his second act as an activist. He started Kaepernick Publishing company, donated to grassroots organizations all over the world and launched the Know Your Rights Camp so that young people from improvised areas can get the resources they need to learn about the many types of racial injustices in America, challenge the system and become the next generation of leaders.

Taking a knee during the anthem has bought Colin Kaepernick more hate than any of us could have probably imagined – from him being a constant target for conservative media to President Donald Trump calling him and other NFL anthem protestors who followed his lead a "sons of a bitch" just because they wanted to use their platform as a vehicle for raising awareness. Michael Starrbury, who was a writer on Netflix's Emmy-nominated series "When they See Us," had the difficult job of not only researching the impact of Kaepernick's protest, but tying his decision to do so with some of the most traumatic incidents from Kaep's childhood in the new Netflix series "Colin In Black and White."

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"Colin in Black and White," co-created by Ava DuVernay and Colin Kaepernick, documents the coming-of-age story of the world renowned athlete turn activist. The six-part series does a deep dive into the struggles Kaepernick faced while growing up Black with white adoptive parents. The series tackles the racism young Black athletes are subject to on and off the field and how a young Colin figured it out how to survive, while helping others survive as well.

On a recent episode of "Salon Talks," Starrbury and I discussed Colin's journey in detail, the power of diversity, what it really means, and why television is better because of the creative mix of unique Black stories. You can watch my "Salon Talks" with Michael Starrbury here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to hear more bringing Kaepernick's experiences to life onscreen.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I would love if you started out by taking our viewers and readers into the world of young Colin Kaepernick.

Colin was born in Milwaukee, adopted as a baby by Teresa and Rick Kaepernick. Eventually they moved from Wisconsin to Turlock, California, where he grew up surrounded by mostly white folks and it kind of formed who he was. He was starting to have his awakening to his culture as a teenager and that's kind of what the show explores.

So how did the whole project come about?

Ava and Colin had met somewhere swanky, as those types tend to do. Colin wanted to do a show. He mentioned it to Ava. Eventually they connected and Ava said, "Yeah, let's go." And for whatever reason, Ava thought of me to write it. I was down. A couple years later, here we are.

One of the things that I wasn't really expecting when watching the show was how, I'm saying this in the most gentle way possible, but how tone-deaf his parents came off in the show in the beginning. And I was wondering if you could speak to that reality from a writer's standpoint and the different devices you used to try to put us in that world to allow us to feel how he felt when his parents couldn't really connect with a lot of the things he was going through as a young Black man.

Yeah, I think his parents came from a place where he did not come from. I mean, culturally, he was finding himself. The idea wasn't to make his parents any other thing than naive. Hopefully the idea comes across that they did love him, but they were lacking in certain things that Colin probably needed in his life at that time. As hard as they tried, they couldn't connect with him on a cultural level.

You listen to Colin talk about himself growing up, his relationship with his parents, and you try to make that as cinematic as possible. You try to find the spirit of that and give that to the actors so they can portray it. I think what everyone's reacting to is the way that the parents in the show played him. And I think that's a good thing because it tells me that we did hit our mark with his parents feeling or being naive, but still believing that they were doing what was best for him. Because it was never out of, "Let's hurt this Black kid."


It was more of, "We just think this is the way it should be." They didn't see him as Black. They thought he had the same kind of life and privileges as the white kids there. And that's just not how it worked for him.

I feel like a whole lot of people who decide to adopt kids from different cultures are going to be able to see a film like this and think about how hyper aware you have to be. If you are a Black kid moving into a white household, you can't just mix in a white community or a white space. You're always going to stick out like a sore thumb.

Right, you don't just mix in like you're saying. And even as a kid, you have to recognize this. Your privilege may not be theirs. I mean, they probably have a little more privilege than you even recognize until you get into these situations with these little microaggressions and sometimes just straight-up overt racism. Yeah, I agree with you 100%.

Watching Colin deliver these history lessons directly into the screen made me think about audience. Who was the audience you guys had in mind in the writers' room when you were constructing these episodes?

Selfishly, I thought about people like me who might know Colin from football, might know him a little bit on the surface from the protest, but didn't really know where any of that stuff comes from. It's never about changing anybody's mind. He's a very polarizing person. Just scrolling through Twitter today, I'm seeing haters who haven't seen the show have something to say about him. You're not going to reach those people. I wasn't worried about that.

The idea is let's understand this brother a little bit more and whatever opinion we have now about him can be more informed. It was really just about me finding my groove and then hopefully everybody else could find what they found in the show too. Thematically, you might get something different from it than even I got, and I think that's okay.

When you said I would take something different than you would take from it, I think it was eye opening for me because I'm from Baltimore City and it's a 65% Black city that's extremely segregated, so we don't have interactions with white people at all coming up unless they're a housing police officer or maybe a teacher or a social worker or something like that. I never even thought about the reality of being the only Black person because I'm so used it being from where everybody's Black. The diversity inside of our race and our experience exists, however.

Yeah, and even taking that and flipping it and putting it in his parents' perspective, they don't know anything about Blackness, Black culture. And then they take this kid, and even if their intentions were pure, putting him in this world or inviting him into this world that doesn't really accept him like that, that's going to be a different kind of culture shock for both of them. For Colin to realize this thing that he's comfortable in isn't really meant for him and wasn't built for him.

Absolutely. I think about the project you worked on, "When They See Us," a lot. I think that was such an important series. I thought it was brilliant. And I thought it was extremely impactful, especially in defining the horrors that exist in the criminal justice system. And even though that was a time piece, these things are still happening to this day. And I wanted to ask you, what do you think "Colin in Black and White" is going to add to the conversation, as far as culture and society?

For anybody that has any empathy or sympathy, they're going to look at it and take a step back at when they are looking at the Black kid who's amongst his white friends in a hotel. Maybe they won't be so quick to judge that kid and think he's up to no good. I think what it's going to do is going to force people to look at some of their stereotypes and how comfortable they are. They're going to have to think about their privilege. They're going to have to think about the sacrifices young people of color make, young Black men make, in order to navigate through even just adolescence, man.

It wasn't really about giving ammo. It wasn't like, "Here's some ammunition for these arguments." It was about here's some information, this thing that happened to Colin, that's really universal. Everybody's going to find something in it. I do hope that people can at the very least understand that the white privilege thing is a real thing, that there's a real underlying racism that's built into this system. And whether those people want to stop it or fight against it, that wasn't what I was trying to do, but I don't want them to be able to deny it, because it's there.

And once they know, it's on them to as far as what they do with it.

That is absolutely correct. You have the information, it's up to you now to do what you're going to do with it.

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I struggle with the idea of thinking that they'll do something with it, at times because America is so competitive. We're so competitive. And white privilege, it gives you a great advantage. You're not passing go and collecting $200, you're passing go and collecting $5,000. I'm passing go and I'm getting hit over the head with a payday loan, so. I think about that side of it too. Everybody's in this race to be successful, at the top, at this place and that place. And if I know that my privilege is going to take me from here to there, why would I forfeit that?

Yeah, that is the challenge, right? You winning the race, again, it's a lack of empathy and sympathy though. It's a lack of understanding how you got in first place in the first place. I agree with you, it does take people with empathy and sympathy and scruples and integrity to say, "Let's truly even the playing field." But at the same time, that's why there's more Twitter-hashtag social activists than there are feet on the ground activists. It's easy to just be like, #GeorgeFloyd. It's harder to be like, "I'm not doing this until we end police brutality." And that's what set Colin apart.

Yeah, you don't even, you don't have to get on the ground to be a hero, you just need wifi. We saw so many people pouring to the streets after the death of George Floyd. We saw everything from sneaker companies coming out with special edition I love Black people, colorways and silhouettes. And we saw networks pouring a whole lot of money into projects around dealing with systemic racism or stories about Black people that aren't being told. And I want to know, look, reflecting on this moment, right? We had over a year to process this stuff. From your perspective, do you feel like we're starting to see the kind of change that we deserve?

No matter who dies or who gets killed or who decides what the flavor of the month is, we're capitalists. A lot of the people who are making these decisions don't think Black money has the same value as white people money for whatever reason. It's up to us to kind of keep the pressure on to make sure that the change is going to happen. Meaning, it almost goes back to what you were saying about why would you give up your spot, basically?

Well, if they feel like if they give us too much, we might take all. It's just too much. Do I feel like it's an even playing field right now? Absolutely not. There's some industries that are doing it better than others. A place like Netflix is trying, I can tell you that. I mean, I see that. So it's hard for me to say, but I'm not ready to call us New Africa yet.

Right, right. Sometimes I wonder if it's a response to what happened with everyone being in the streets and protesting. I wonder about the lasting effects and what is that going to mean. And I do think shows like this series are going to have a lasting effect on a whole lot of people who see it and get a chance to understand where some of the anger and frustration comes from. However, I don't think we'll be able to reach a certain segment of people in general, and we have to be able to live and survive with that. When you talk about those haters, it's almost like there's no way to approach them in a civil way because they're looking for conflict. They're looking for violence. They're looking to save their country that they're losing — a country that I probably own more of than them. Do you ever think about how to reach those people?

I don't try to change. I'll leave that to the politicians. The ones who are just like, "Hey, we got to reach out to everybody and show sympathy towards them." Now, that doesn't mean I go out of my way to antagonize them. But I mean, I understand that a lot of those people, even, and I think we touched on it on the show, you can change laws but you can't change hearts. So some of those hearts are just hardened and they believe what they believe, and those are not the people I'm going after.

Some people they are who they are, but there's some people who genuinely don't know. There was a couple people talking to me last night after the premiere who learned something, a couple of white people, and even simple stuff like, "I didn't know it hurt when you got your hair braided," like even simple stuff like that starts a conversation. It's like, okay, you paid attention enough to care about that. Let's talk about that. Let's talk about why that means so much that he was able to do that with his hair. So, there are people who genuinely are curious and want to understand our experiences, so those are the people I'm more interested in reaching out to and talking to and having conversations with.

Absolutely. The intellectual curious people who really, really, really want to learn. Another thing in the show was the racism that exists in sports. Did you feel like we're going to reach a moment where people will start to understand that, and what that means? It's been an industry fueled by Black power, Black bodies, and Black skills for so long. It's terrible.

No, it's the same thing. A lot of people just see Black athletes as gladiators, just go out there and perform, and make me happy emotionally or whatever kind of vicarious-ness they get out of that. It's interesting, like talking about the haters. Once in a while, I'll just click on their profile and then you'll see all kinds of pictures of this Black athlete, this Black athlete that they like, and it's just like I don't think they're grasping even what's happening here. Maybe they are, but it's crazy to me that there's so many sports athletes that maybe they don't even recognize that they hate Black people.

But think about "Do the Right Thing" and that scene where he was calling Dino out on Magic Johnson, Mike Tyson, Prince. They're different. They're not like the rest of y'all.

That scene, yeah. 

So, it's kind of like the same thing. Colin Kaepernick has been so impactful outside of the NFL and then you guys are taking it to the next level with this show, and the mission is so strong and so many people are being inspired and learning. With all that being said, and the ability to be a part of that, and to do that, do you think he should still be in the NFL?

Me personally, no, but if Colin wants to play football he should have the opportunity to play football. They took that from him, so I never doubted his ability. It's pretty clear why he's not in the league. If anybody's who's honest with themselves will say they know why he's not in the league, and it's not because he can't throw or can't run anymore. That's not it. So, if he wants that I think he should be allowed that opportunity. As a friend of Colin's I would wish he would not pursue that. I don't see anything good coming from it unless his happiness, or his passion for it, will rise above all the negativity. I don't think that's a space for him.

I feel you on that, especially when I look at the Know Your Rights campaign and all of the young people that he's had a chance to personally interact with. Protect that brother at all costs. What's next for you?

Hopefully, something new with Netflix that we'll be able to talk about real soon. It's a good partnership with them. And who knows? Maybe me and Ava will come up with something together again. We seem to make magic together.

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By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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