Please, No More Sneakers from Enes Kanter

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Twitter

ENES KANTER, the center for the Boston Celtics, made viral tweets earlier this week with photos of sneakers in support of Taiwan, having tweeted photos of custom sneakers that read “Free Tibet” and “Free Uyghur” in the past. The shoes are not for sale, as they are not intended to raise money for any specific cause. Instead, they are a pair of one-off custom shoes for Kanter, who after all, as an NBA player, has the socioeconomic privilege to commission custom shoes at will. In the past, this has involved designs by Chinese Australian artist Badiucao, who is known for political art about China. 

Nevertheless, the design of Kanter’s Taiwan sneakers is worth commenting on. While featuring the green flag used by the pan-Green camp in the front, the back features the ROC flag. The ROC flag is viewed by many in Taiwan as a symbol of authoritarianism during the White Terror, seeing as the white sun insignia is the KMT party emblem. Among other things, the design of the sneakers suggests not having actually spoken to Taiwanese local voices about the symbolism. 

It is hard to escape accusations of clout chasing or trivializing life-or-death matters for individuals in China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, when one’s mode of expressing support for these places is commissioning custom sneakers about them. 

This fact proves ironic when Kanter does, in fact, have a history of taking serious political stances. Kanter is banned from returning to his native Turkey because of his criticism of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian policies. That being said, a courageous stance on an issue close to home for Kanter does not dismiss the charge of clout chasing when it comes to issues regarding China, Hong Kong, or Taiwan—far more distant places for Kanter. 

Many treat Kanter’s bravery on stances pertaining to Turkey, then, as giving him a get out of jail-free card regarding other issues he speaks out on. But to this extent, Kanter’s stances regarding Turkish politics should also be more closely scrutinized than simply idealizing him as some dissident. Kanter is critical of Erdogan but supportive of former Erdogan ally Fethullah Gulen, who helped Erdogan’s rise to power by purging political opponents. Kanter is also highly outspoken in support of Israel, never mind Israel’s violence against Palestinians on a daily basis. 

Despite calls to “Free China”, Chinese themselves rarely enter the picture for Kanter’s tweets criticizing the Chinese government. More generally, in referring to a “cultish” CCP, Kanter suggests Chinese as an indistinguishable, brainwashed mass subject to Oriental despotism. 

This is an issue that demands nuance at present, seeing as the present is a time in which violence against Asian immigrants in the US is at an all-time high in the wake of COVID-19

That is, the depiction of Chinese as a mindless, brainwashed horde normalizes violence against them as occurs in the US, with the view that Chinese lack individuality and humanity, therefore lowering the threshold of moral wrong for violence committed against them—even when this goes hand in hand with claims that Chinese must be “saved”. In fact, it often does. 

It would not be surprising if Kanter, then, actually has a more domestic American audience in mind with ostensible actions in support of Taiwan or Hong Kong. For Kanter, who has seen little activity on the courts this season, stances in support of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and against China may be a way to keep in the news. Athletes are, after all, entertainers who need to find ways of staying in the spotlight for their career and theatrics may be a way to keep relevant. One notes the element of machismo to Kanter’s tweets directed at China. 

Given present tensions between the US and China, one notes Republican hawks have been among those to announce strengthened measures in support of Taiwan and Hong Kong in response to Chinese actions. These actions are only announced in response to something that China does first, suggesting that this strengthening of support is only to hit back at China rather than out of any genuine support for Taiwan and China, and these actions are aimed at satisfying the desire of their base that some action be taken against China. 

More generally, speaking up for Taiwan or Hong Kong by American celebrities or politicians can be primarily aimed at satisfying this domestic audience closer to home, rather than actually aimed at benefiting Taiwan, Hong Kong, or elsewhere. Before considering Kanter or any other celebrity or politician that expresses support for Taiwan or Hong Kong simply altruistic in their support, it is worth reflecting on how they might themselves have other motivations. 

And the dynamic of celebrities commercializing activism for clout—even if sometimes genuinely well-intentioned at the onset—is a time-old one that has been seen again and again. But this often comes across as insincere and personally motivated to those with a direct stake in this issue. Indeed, organizing around an issue relevant to a specific group without including them in the conversation can prove dangerous, but this is what happens around issues regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, or elsewhere all too often from purported allies. 

It should also not be surprising that one might be willing to speak quite bravely on issues that touch close to home, but be perfectly willing to trivialize those which are more distant. Were Kanter’s criticisms of Erdogan also expressed primarily through sneaker designs, for example?

NBA players are not allowed to make political statements on the court or through the clothing they wear, hence the sneakers are justified as exploiting loopholes to allow for political statements. And one notes that political statements made by athletes during sports games have sometimes gotten players in trouble with sports leagues. 

The most well-known contemporary example of this in the US may be Colin Kaepernick, who inspired other athletes to take a knee during the American national anthem to protest police killings of Black Americans. Yet imagine if sports players’ expressions of support for Black Lives Matter had not consisted of taking a knee during the American national anthem, but donning personally commissioned sneakers. Probably the issue would have been perceived as about swag and branding, more than anything else. [1] This trivialization, even commercialization, of the issue seems particularly distasteful in relation to the issue of ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang. 

The unseriousness of how issues in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or China are treated by Kanter should be self-evident, then, reminding vaguely of Ikea’s much-memed Pride couches. 

Banner image of Kanter’s Twitter

Still, it would not be surprising if individuals in Taiwan, Hong Kong, or elsewhere fall over themselves in praise of Kanter. Where Taiwan is concerned, given the strong sense of international isolation felt by Taiwan, individuals in these places are often happy for any kind of attention, though this sometimes sets a low bar. Nevertheless, it is the height of condescension from westerners to believe that people from these places should simply be grateful for any sort of bone—or sneaker, in this case—thrown at them. 

After all, what this passes over is that there are, in fact, ways for non-Taiwanese to speak up for Taiwan in their own ways, in ways that are not demeaning and that include Taiwanese in the conversation. A good example would be the recent John Oliver segment on Taiwan, in which Oliver’s team took the time to research contemporary Taiwanese views on what they hoped the future of Taiwan would be, and packed the segment with a wealth of historical detail (Full disclosure: The present author was one of those interviewed by the Last Week Today in preparation for the segment). 

Oliver’s segment was humorous, sometimes poking fun at aspects of Taiwanese politics such as the spectacle of legislators throwing pig offal at each other in the legislature. Yet this never came off as condescending or trivializing in the manner of Kanter’s sneakers. Namely, the Oliver production team had clearly and self-evidently done the legwork to have an in-depth understanding of contemporary issues facing Taiwan, and were deeply concerned with the question of what Taiwanese wanted for their future. As such, the segment ultimately came off as having a stake in the issue rather than glomping onto it for clout or to appeal to contemporary anti-China views for domestic American audiences. 

And so, perhaps the NBA star has something to learn from the late-night talk show host. There remains a fine line to be walked between a sincere expression of support—that includes people from the affected places themselves in the conversation—and what comes off as motivated primarily by clout. 

[1] At the same time, it should not be surprising that Nike later featured Kaepernick in ads aimed at branding the company as socially progressive on issues regarding race, which later won the company an Emmy. This itself points to the nexus of commercialism and activism that quickly emerges when athletes or other types of celebrities make statements regarding social causes.