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In his classic study of racism and psychiatry, Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon made a number of startling and powerful observations. While many of these have been documented, his insights pertaining to popular culture, and the place of black people within such, remains relatively unknown.

In speaking about the use of popular culture in racist society, Fanon coined the term collective catharsis. In contrast to Carl Jung, who noted that societies were governed by a collective unconscious, Fanon noted that it was more appropriate to see modern societies as governed by a collective need for catharsis. This catharsis, which normally works at the individual level, involves a collective need, at least among the white dominant members of society, to release built up tensions, and channel them into “safe” preoccupations.

Fanon, following Freud, also suggested that technological advancement tends to make the dominant class feel a loss of masculine prowess. This perceived loss of prowess is thus projected on to the subordinate class, which is seen as hyper-masculine and overly aggressive. As Fanon writes in the context of the Southern United States in Black Skin, White Masks: “Since the beginning of slavery, the collective unconscious drives the [white] Southerner to define blacks in animal-like terms.”

Sport and collective catharsis

This loss, or perceived loss of masculine prowess, which I have touched in my book Out of Left Field: Sport and Social Inequality, plays itself out in the realm of popular culture. More specifically, it plays out in mass spectator, highly commercialized sport.

As Fanon writes: “The Whites, in order to defend themselves against their unconscious [loss of power], try to use these stories [e.g. culture, sports] to release potential aggression.” The release of potential aggression is what Fanon called collective catharsis.

If one looks out at the contemporary sporting landscape, at least in the United States, one is haunted by the insights Fanon gave us. Typically black athletes play to largely white, suburban audiences. In many cases, these black athletes are seen as no more than vehicles for the release of this aggression. As such, they are often seen in sub-human terms. The general public often sees athletes as less intelligent. More racist fans include Houston Texans owner Bob McNair who referred to athletes as “inmates” in a 2017 interview.

They are also seen as being there to serve the fans and are excoriated when they do not. There are several further examples of this. For instance, in a recent HBO telecast of “The Shop” produced by LeBron James, New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. describes the way that he was treated by fans in the wake of his decision to kneel during the playing of the national anthem in 2017. Beckham notes that he felt like “a zoo animal” after being screamed at by fans.

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Colin Kaepernick and the terrain of struggle

Of course, the Colin Kaepernick saga should be seen in this light. He is the quarterback who knelt for the national anthem before National Football League games last year as a protest against social injustice. When asked why he did not stand, Kaepernick said: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of colour…There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

A black athlete (and others) tried to challenge the terms of the spectacle – the rules of engagement, as it were – and went against the consensus of the catharsis. This split, between a public that is used to images of docile and compliant athletes in order to fulfill their lost feelings of masculine inferiority (not to mention patriotic supremacy) and the athletes who are no longer willing to play the charade, is the contradiction at the heart of professional sports.

The charade, what Fanon called the “absurd drama” of race and racism, is normally a one-sided affair that everyone plays along with, until such time as some athletes feel that they do not want to, or simply cannot. To play the charade means to ignore the powerful social contradictions at the heart of the United States, dating back to the beginning of slavery. Yet, as I wrote in a previous piece on Colin Kaepernick, the charade sometimes becomes impossible to play due to the profound contradiction between the reality of fans and those of the players, especially in the NFL.

When athletes (and others) stop playing the charade, it opens up a possibility for change. This is what the late black British critic Stuart Hall, following Fanon, referred to when he called culture a “terrain of struggle.” This is why Colin Kaepernick, and the actions of other African-American athletes speaking up against racism and police brutality in the United States, is such a lightning rod in the contemporary debate.

Not only are Kaepernick and others threatening to expose the charade for what it is, they are also trying to usher in a new era, when the collective catharsis, that underpins professional sports, at least in the United States, is not the governing norm. It is hard to say where this all will play out, but it is clear Kaepernick’s more “radical” actions have had several ripple effects.

For instance, it has inspired several others, including NBA superstars Steph Curry and LeBron James, as well as other players in the NFL and in Major League Baseball to take more vocal positions against racism and police brutality in the United States. The recent decisions by the Philadelphia Eagles and Golden State Warriors not to attend White House ceremonies in their honour is a testament to Kaepernick’s efforts. James, for his part, seems particularly intent on using his platform to go against the catharsis model. This is true if one looks at his recent HBO series “The Shop,” which features prominent African American athletes and entertainers to discuss the nature of  racism in the United States, as an example.

The Nike backlash

The recent Nike move to continue its sponsorship of Kaepernick should also be seen in this light. Kaepernick, as a result of his stance, is more a hero now than he ever was as a player. It is not clear that Nike is simply a capitalist company expecting to profit from the political storm in the United States (as some like David Zirin have argued), or they are in sympathy with Kaepernick and his cause (as athletes such as Serena Williams and LeBron James are suggesting).

What is clear is that Nike’s efforts have to be seen within this larger framework of culture as struggle or as collective catharsis, and the role of spectator sports within the society. In other words, the Kaepernick story, the Nike backlash and whatever else will come should be seen as the struggle between the two versions of culture that are playing out – where one is trying to maintain the collective catharsis, which includes relegating blacks to animal-like status, and the other tries to use one’s platform (and in this case mass spectator sports) as a way to intervene, to act or to shape the society as it were. Nike is, ironically, following Kaepernick’s lead by choosing to, however problematically, shift the terms of the collective catharsis.

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