November 22, 2013

Football and the Performance of Race

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

The discussion of the Jonathan Martin/Ritchie Incognito case would be incomplete without mention of its racial components.

It was somewhat unsurprising that even after news of his alleged harassment that Dolphins teammates rallied around Incognito. He seemed to be a team leader, and well liked for his puckish demeanor. What was surprising was the way they did it. The Miami Herald detailed a series of player reactions to the Incognito’s alleged racism with all voices claiming that he wasn’t racist. He is, to them, an “honorary black man.”

A former player told the Herald reporter:

I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.

People might wonder why in his now infamous voice mail Incognito called Martin “half-black.” He also called Martin something worse, but let’s put that aside and focus on what the intent was: to question Martin’s blackness. Martin’s parents are highly educated and both identify as African-American, and Martin himself didn’t participate in team activities the same way that others did. Incognito saw Martin as only ”half,” presumably because of his manner, class, and education. Martin was seen as an outsider. What Georg Simmel would call, a stranger.

This kind of interaction between race and culture reminds me of an old Village Voice article about how rapper Eminem’s lower-class background trumped race, allowing him to be perceived as authentic. Similarly, Kayne West (whose mother was also a college professor) has been criticized for being not ”black enough” because he wasn’t from a poor background. As the former Dolphins player indicated, “where you are from” is as relevant as skin color in some contexts. It is “how you act.”

“Acting white” and “acting black” has been a troubling issue for sociologists, and the description of the Incognito/Martin events is a familiar one for any scholar of race. Martin’s struggles recall Elijah Anderson’s discussion of African American males code-switching to maintain dignity and masculinity in a variety of settings in Code of the Streetand Nikki Jones’ as-sharp-as-brief discussion of culture, gender, and race, “I was Aggressive for the Streets, Pretty for the Pictures”: Gender, Difference, and the Inner-City Girl. ” Both studies challenge the essential characteristics of race, and illuminate strategies for survival under tough pressures from police (and others in authority) as well as their own compatriots. 

Here is where race, culture, and education meet. In a 2005 American Journal of Sociology study, Tyson, Darity and Castellino challenge the notion that the fear of being stigmatized as “acting white”—African American students taking a positive rather than oppositional stance against education in a way that hinders their academic achievement—is a problem for all students.

If we turn this inside out, we are reminded of Min Zhou’s fantastic research on Asian-Americans being given “honorary white” status, and how it is a rather tricky thing. There are some positives, it seems, to such a status and yet Zhou details the unintended consequences of such an ascription: it homogenizes hundreds of cultures as ”Asian,” sets high expectations for individual members of the group that might have different abilities and beliefs, and it casts other minority groups as underachievers reluctant to succeed in the U.S. (by ignoring that Asian-Americans immigrate here with greater levels of economic wealth and academic credentials).

So, in the final evaluation, how can we think of the ascription of “honorary black” to Ritchie Incognito and “half-black” (which is to say he “acts white”) to Martin? How did it shape these events? But more importantly, how can we think of the unintended consequences of labeling a white man in this way? Does it homogenize African-American athletes’ attitudes and experiences? Is there only one way to “act [like a] Black [Athlete]?”

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