OPINION
09/09/2018 07:02 pm ET

Is Nike An Ally Now?

A Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick is seen on Sept. 8 in New York City.
ANGELA WEISS via Getty Images
A Nike ad featuring Colin Kaepernick is seen on Sept. 8 in New York City.

Last week, Nike released its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick with the slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” and a video that touches on issues of ability and racial injustice, and gives media space to consider Kaepernick’s work against police brutality.

There have been a variety of responses. Some conservative folks including President Donald Trump have decried or vowed to boycott Nike. Others have gone as far as to destroy their Nike gear (destroying stuff you already paid for will sure show ’em). Many others have praised Nike, purchased more gear, resulting in a 31 percent increase in online sales since the campaign’s release, and are elevating Nike as an ally or hero in the movement for black lives.

Some in more self-proclaimed progressive spaces are shaking their heads at the campaign, calling it nothing more than a corporation riding the wave of athlete activism and marketing to a younger and more diverse crowd to make more money.  

Nike is a lot like many (white) liberals who historically show up late after the major violence and vitriol of a movement and claim to be allies.

My immediate question when the campaign launched was, “Where was Nike four years ago?” Where was this multibillion-dollar corporation when black people were being tear-gassed as we resisted the very police brutality that Kaepernick later protested? What did it have to say about the value of black bodies outside of sports and the injustices in the United States before an NFL quarterback ever took a knee?

Where was Nike even two years ago when Kaepernick started his protests? Where was it when it was more dangerous or costly to associate with him while he was tied to the NFL? 

Nike is a lot like many (white) liberals who historically show up late and after the major violence or vitriol of a movement. They expect praise or to be called “woke” after the primary risk is gone. They call themselves allies without paying real costs and are able to talk the talk and equate it with being down for a cause.

It is much easier to put a safety pin on your clothing or change your Facebook banner to an inclusive message rather than putting jobs, reputations and relationships on the line to interrupt systemic oppression. Much of modern “activism” is simply progressive projection with no cost. White liberals and Nike alike often show up when the danger has mostly passed and the risk is much lower.

Nike is late to the movement and still problematic in probably more ways than it is not, including its constant labor disputes and a history of using sweatshops to create its products. However, it has taken a step as a corporation that has been meaningful for people around the country. It showed up and put its logo on the cause of justice. Yes, it is commodifying justice in some ways, but it is also creating the context to normalize the movement against police brutality. Those are not mutually exclusive.

For progressives, it is easy to see this little bit of progress as no progress and to never be able to affirm the steps forward, all in the name of a mythological pure justice where people are birthed as automatic anti-racists. Yet, no one pops out of the womb actualized; people (and companies) grow and find their way. 

This is a lesson for all allies: Show up soon, show up often.

If we never stop to engage with the small things worth celebrating, we will likely win fewer people over to the cause of justice. No, we shouldn’t spend our energy coddling allies for finally doing the right thing. Rather, we should be able to recognize that progress matters, that people change, that your racist uncle is no longer using the phrase “mulatto” or “colored people” and that’s a good thing. Doing something is certainly better than doing nothing.

Is it possible to see the imperfection of a situation and still recognize where some degree of progress is being made? It is easy to believe that no progress is ever good enough, that if people or corporations have complicity and oppression in their past, then no move forward counts; however, almost no movement has thrived by decrying progress.  

So yes, Nike is problematic. It is leaning on capitalism, a primary tool of white supremacy, to show up for the movement in some way. It also uses cheap labor. It has gender discrimination suits against it. It jumped on the movement late and in a way that blatantly benefits it. It’s all true.

But at least it did something. Unlike other corporations that have worked with the Trump campaign or done business with the National Rifle Association, Nike centered the marginalized and our experiences. Nike made a statement. Nike did it.

Nike put a light-skinned, afro-wearing, controversial activist in the spotlight and gave him the capacity to continue his on-the-ground community development work. It created a day of celebration for black folks to feel seen and heard, if even in a small way, by having our issue at the center of a major campaign. It centered people of differing abilities and races in a campaign and touted Serena Williams, a woman, as the greatest athlete of time.

Now Nike has a responsibility to not just pay lip service to the movement, but to do what its campaign says, to sacrifice and to work hard against police brutality and violence against black bodies. Like all allies, talk is cheap and social media campaigns only go so far. It needs to follow its own slogan and just do it.

This is a lesson for all allies, show up soon, show up often, but if you happen to show up late, it’s not about you being the hero, but about the heroes that came before you who paved the way for you to join at all.

Brandi Miller is a campus minister and justice program director from the Pacific Northwest.

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