There’s a never-ending debate in the African American community about what it means to be black. The discussion occurs daily around dinner tables, in barber shops, on basketball courts — wherever black folks gather and share thoughts on our race.
African American athletes, because of the important position they’ve had in black society, are often held up as examples of high-profile blacks who have either remained true to the community or turned their backs on it. Are they “keeping it real?” Or are they “sellouts?” Problem is, there isn’t only one black experience. It’s just wrong to try to fit every African American into the same box. We’re pulled apart each time some African Americans are accused of being “less black” than others because of their personal relationships, political views, where they chose to live or how they raise their children.
Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III has said he won’t be defined by his race. Why aspire to be better than Hall of Famer Warren Moon when Joe Montana and John Elway are also on the list of all-time greats? Griffin wants to be the best ever. I like his thinking. Unfortunately, some African Americans become uneasy when the most successful among us make any mention of shedding “blackness.” Regardless of the context, those words stir questions about whether the speaker actually identifies with African Americans.
There was a time — such as during the civil rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s — when it would have been unthinkable for any African American athlete to speak openly about not being defined by race. And many black athletes, as the leading figures in the community, felt a responsibility to fight on behalf of civil rights. That’s exactly what pioneers such as heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and Olympic track star Wilma Rudolph, among others, did. Times, however, have changed.
Griffin is the savviest 22-year-old athlete I’ve ever met. He comments little about race and won’t touch questions regarding religion and politics. Griffin figures nothing good could come from sharing his thoughts on those subjects. He’s right.
But as a sensational African American quarterback playing in Washington, Griffin will face enormous race-based scrutiny throughout his career, as he did from ESPN personality Rob Parker earlier this week. Griffin’s parents told my colleague Dave Sheinin that they raised their three children — Robert has two older sisters — to be largely color-blind. And Griffin grew up in Copperas Cove, Tex., which definitely isn’t anything like the South Side of Chicago.
Some would say Griffin did not have a “real” black upbringing because he isn’t from the inner city. But Griffin’s blackness is no more diminished because he was reared in Copperas Cove than someone else’s is enhanced by having lived in South Central Los Angeles. Those who would disagree believe in the importance of “street cred” above all else.
In college basketball and the NBA, black players from affluent backgrounds face the stigma of not being considered as legitimate as players who come from the ’hood. Kobe Bryant and Grant Hill quickly come to mind.