I was driving my youngest daughter to school Thursday when a text message appeared on my cell phone: "Sup Deron. Wats ur take on RF3 (sic). Real Brutha or a cornball who don't wanna b a Bruhtha." It was from a friend, ESPN commentator Rob Parker.
Not wanting to text and drive, I didn't answer right away and actually forgot about it. But Parker called after I returned home and we chatted about the subject for 10 minutes before he had to leave. "I'm about to go on," he said.
Moments later, he was on "First Take," questioning an athlete's blackness with references to a white fiancée and Republican leanings. The controversial segment outraged viewers, blew up cyberspace and earned him a suspension – with the threat of more severe consequences looming.
I imagine this is what it feels when you're the last person to speak to someone before he or she harms themself. You wonder if your conversation was a contributing factor. You wonder if you should have done anything differently. You wonder if you could have said something to steer him in the opposite direction.
Robert Griffin III is an outstanding young man and fantastic quarterback who happens to be African-American. He's smart, humble and polite, hard-working and well-spoken. He carries himself with preternatural grace and poise for a 22-year-old superstar. His ability to charm seems endless.
Those attributes aren't exclusive to black folks or white folks. But centuries-old scarring from overt and covert racism can make them seem exceptional for one group and normal for the other. It's evident when some whites are overlyimpressed with smooth and polished minorities, just as it's evident when some minorities question the authenticity of smooth and polished kinfolk.
RG3 is atypical, but not based on his skin color.
His combination of skills on and off the field is rare for any athlete, any race. He rightfully rejects attempts to paint him through a racial prism, while acknowledging what's readily apparent. "I am an African-American in America," he said during his news conference Wednesday, in reference to a question about Martin Luther King, Jr. "That will never change. But I don't have to be defined by that."
More accurately, he doesn't have to accept others' definition, whether they call him the N-word, Uncle Tom or Little Bobby. Ignorance, unfortunately, seems destined to plague us forever.
"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've tried to go out and do."
That's admirable, the goal of many ethnic groups that made their way to America. Some take great pride in their ancestry and customs, keeping them alive with a Little Italy here, a Germantown there and urban sections devoted to Irish pubs. Others maintain few connections to their roots, choosing to downplay the heritage and culture of their forbears.
To each his own. I don't advocate forgetting about your people and where you came from, but it isn't a crime. (And melting in is much easier for some groups). I don't think RG3 is ashamed or looking to distance himself from blacks, but he wouldn't be the first high-achieving minority to do so.
Again, that's their choice. Either way, their self-identity doesn't change how the mainstream views them.
Ideally, viewing RG3 as a quarterback who happens to be black should be equivalent to viewing him as a black quarterback. But too many of us trip over the notion Griffin espoused earlier this season, when he said he doesn't see color.
We've heard similar things from well-intentioned, kind-hearted individuals who say they sometimes forget that President Obama is black – and they mean it as a compliment!
No, skin color should never be a basis of judgment. So let justice be blind while the rest of us enjoy the blessing of sight.
We most certainly see color. Just like we see gender and generation. And height and weight. And hair and the lack thereof. It's OK.
We can acknowledge that people (gasp!) come in different sizes, shapes and colors, without reaching conclusions or determining treatment based on size, shape and color. Noting the obvious isn't a character flaw; "blindness" isn't a sign of moral superiority.
Conversely, despite stereotypes and generalizations, blacks and whites aren't monolithic any more than thicks and thins. Whether RG3 is militant or milquetoast, radical or reserved, apoplectic or apologetic, he's still, in his words, "an African-American in America."
There's no need to debate that fact, especially not on national TV.
I just wish I was clearer about that before my friend went on ESPN and questioned RG3's bonafides. It might not have made a difference, but I'd feel better about what transpired.
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Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and Washington Times sports columnist with more than 25 years of experience. He has worked at USA Today and his column was syndicated in Gannett’ 80-plus newspapers from 2000-2009, appearing in The Arizona Republic, The Indianapolis Star, The Detroit News and many others. Follow Deron on Twitter @Its_Ball_Good or email him at email@example.com.
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