The depressing debate about whether or not Robert Griffin III is black enough
Written by Thomas Threlkeld on . Posted in Washington Redskins
"First Take" -- ESPN's sports "debate" show is never an edifying spectacle. Generally, you judge each show by the level of embarrassment you feel for the participants after they're finished shrieking at each other and smirking for the cameras. Today, however, the show sunk to a new low. Guest Rob Parker, an ESPN and "First Take" staple, despite having never actually uttering anything memorable, questioned whether or not Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III is black enough or a real black person. Here's the video:
This stems from comments RG3 made earlier this week on the subject of race and being an African-American quarterback in Washington, D.C. Here's a bit of it:
“For me, you don’t ever want to be defined by the color of your skin,” Griffin said. “You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That’s what I strive [for]. I am an African American, in America, and that will never change. But I don’t have to be defined by that.” ...
“They’re always going to try to put you in a box with other African American quarterbacks: [Michael] Vick, [Cam] Newton, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon,” Griffin said. “But there are guys like… Warren Moon and Doug Williamswho really didn’t run that much. I think that’s the negative stereotype when it comes to African American quarterbacks, that [all they do is] run. But those guys threw it around, and I like to think I can throw it around a little bit. And that’s the goal — not to go out and prove anybody wrong, but just to let your talent speak for itself.”
Parker suggested RG3's comments -- and various other facts about him, such as his white fiancee -- demonstrate he's not authentically black.
“For me, personally, just me, this throws up a red flag, what I keep hearing. And I don’t know who’s asking the questions, but we’ve heard a couple of times now of a black guy kind of distancing himself away from black people.
“I understand the whole story of I just want to be the best," Parker continued. “Nobody’s out on the field saying to themselves, I just want to be the best black quarterback. You’re just playing football, right? You want to be the best, you want to throw the most touchdowns and have the most yards and win thboe most games. Nobody is [thinking] that.
“But time and time we keep hearing this, so it just makes me wonder deeper about him. And I’ve talked to some people down in Washington D.C., friends of mine, who are around and at some of the press conferences, people I’ve known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question. Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?”
When asked about the term "cornball brother," Parker defined it thusly: “Well, [that] he’s black, he kind of does his thing, but he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us,” Parker explained. “He’s kind of black, but he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with, because he’s off to do something else.”
When the subject of RG3's braids came up, Parker responded: “To me, that’s very urban and makes you feel like…wearing braids, you’re a brother. You’re a brother if you’ve got braids on.”
Parker went on...
We all know he has a white fiancée. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information [about that] at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue. Because we did find out with Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods was like I’ve got black skin but don’t call me black. So people got to wondering about Tiger Woods early on.”
Then something very unexpected happened. Panelist Stephen A. Smith was the voice of reason. I never thought I'd type those words.
“Well first of all let me say this: I’m uncomfortable with where we just went,” Smith said. “RGIII, the ethnicity, the color of his fiancée is none of our business. It’s irrelevant. He can live his life any way he chooses. The braids that he has in his hair, that’s his business, that’s his life. I don’t judge someone’s blackness based on those kind of things. I just don’t do that. I’m not that kind of guy."
There is something very depressing about all of this. Race is never far from the surface of discussion in our country and Washington, D.C. is a symbol of both power and weakness for African-Americans. Power because they are a majority in the city and every mayor of the city has been African-American. Weakness because D.C. does not enjoy full autonomy and is constantly being harassed by those in Congress who do not necessarily wish the city well.
Griffin is a military brat whose parents, both retired sergeants, raised him to focus on accomplishing his goals and to concern himself with skin color as little as possible.
“My parents raised me to not ever look at race or color,” Griffin said recently, “so it doesn’t have a big part in my self-identity. [But] I think it has played a big part in how other people view me, just going back to when I was a kid, to even now, doing the things that I’ve been able to do. As an African American, I think other people view that in a different way than I do.”
Griffin's family raised him to avoid identifying himself with a particular racial group and instead seek out friends and associates based on their character and intelligence. If he encountered racism -- and he did, usually of the relatively subtle kind -- he should not treat others similarly.
Whether he intends to or not, Griffin has seemingly striven to be an athlete that appeals to as many people as possible, as Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson did. One could regard this as a cynical move to market himself to white America, but his parents, his upbringing and the people who knew him when he was younger, all indicate this is actually Griffin's personality.
Griffin wants to be a star quarterback for all Redskins fans and the sort of player and person that will be admired even by people who do not care for the Washington Redskins. It's a laudable goal and he seems to have made a good start at it. At FedEx Field one can see and hear whites and blacks chanting "R-G-3" with equal passion.
Denied positive role models for so long, it is understandable that many African-Americans would want to claim Griffin for themselves. While Griffin and his friends have gone out of their way for years to de-emphasize his blackness as a quarterback -- lest he be moved off to a position like wide receiver or defensive back -- because of the prejudice of whites, some African-Americans will want to emphasize his blackness. "He's not just a quarterback," they think. "He's a BLACK quarterback. He should be proud of it."
It seems pretty clear that Griffin is proud to be a quarterback and while he's certainly not ashamed of being black, it's not the first or last thing he thinks about during the day. The fact that he fell in love with and proposed to a white woman he met at Baylor University is evidence that he seems more than skin color in people. The fact that his parents heartily approve of the match -- a union of equals, his mother says -- is evidence of where Griffin learned these lessons.
Griffin's teachers and associates at Baylor describe a young man who had friends of all races, seemed comfortable around everyone and seemed, at least outwardly, almost disinterested in race. He was aware of his African-American heritage, a professor said, but refused to let it determine his decisions.
To some people that will always mean Robert Griffin III isn't "black enough" or "authentically black." The fact that he wears braids not because they're a symbol of authentic blackness but because he likes the way they look will rankle some. The fact that he plans to marry a white woman and surrounds himself with friends and mentors of all races, will bother some. There probably isn't much Griffin can do about that and it probably isn't worth his time to try.
This is a lot to be dumped on the shoulders of a 22-year-old man who has enough on his plate just trying to master the intricacies of playing perhaps the most demanding position in all of sports. The best thing he can do is probably ignore it as much as possible and focus on doing his job well. Anyone with so much talent and charm, who is as successful as he is at such a young age, is going to attract a lot of attention. If that person is also black, the attention with be mixed up with America's long and tortuous history of racial animosity and resentment.
We will hear and read much more about this subject in the months and years to come, I'm sure. I just hope most of it will be a bit more clever than what went on during "First Take" this morning.