“I Always Feel Like Somebody’s Watching Me”: The Intra-Group Gaze of Race and Identity
Came up for a short break from sermon preparation and should have kept my head in the book!
Apparently the “race and ethnicity police” have infiltrated the ranks of sports broadcasters. One wishes the racial identity police would go the way of Hitler’s Gestapo, but we’ll have to await the end of the world war called “race.”
Veteran sports reporter Rob Parker has raised some eyebrows and caused a stir by questioning whether the Redskins’ RGIII is a “brother” or a “cornball brother.” Parker doubts RGIII’s black bona fides because apparently he has a white fiance, may be a Republican [gasp in horror!], and continues to answer repeated and unsolicited questions about being a “Black quarterback” with equal parts big picture grace and hat tips to his fan base. Parker wants him to just pull out his ghetto card–if he has one–and act “Black.” Parker gives him credit for wearing braids–that’s “urban” after all–but finds RGIII suspect nonetheless. Parker concludes on ESPN’s First Take, “he’s not one of us.”
Stephen A. Smith countered by saying he was uncomfortable with where the interview with Parker had gone. He rightly says that the man’s fiance and political leanings are no one’s business. Credit to Smith for seeing clearly on those issues. But Smith goes on to express his irritation with the tacit requirement of successful Black athletes to “please the masses.” Smith rightly rejects the double-standard that’s long plagued prominent Black athletes. They should be free from the white gaze just as white athletes are. Kudos.
Yet, even Smith has to tip his hat to the identity police. He says:
Let me say this clearly [does he ever say anything vaguely or subtly?]. I don’t know of anybody who goes into something trying to be the best black anything. We understand that. That’s a given. But I do think it’s important to acknowledge a level of pride and a feeling of a level of accomplishment for being somebody who happens to be of African American descent, who competes and achieves and accomplishes things on the highest level while also bringing attention – to some degree anyhow – to the pride that they feel being black. Because they’re allowing themselves to be a reminder to those who preceded them, who worked so hard, accomplished and achieved so much, but were denied the accolades that that individual is receiving. [emphasis added]
Of course, there is nothing wrong with feeling appropriate levels of pride for accomplishing something only 1 in a million dreaming high school athletes will achieve. And there’s nothing wrong with having that sense of accomplishment intensified by the remembrance of obstacles personal and racial. And there’s everything right about allowing your example to encourage and inspire others who watch and appreciate you and share much of your experience–personal and racial. Nothing wrong with that at all.
But Smith’s comment–in its effect–differs only in tact and subtlety from Parker’s. Smith is rightly irritated by the double-standard forced upon Black athletes by a wider society, but he’s not as irritated by the hegemonic gaze of African Americans themselves. He rejects the white gaze but assumes the rightness of the black gaze. Smith’s comment reveals the limits and constraints placed on personal freedom from inside the idea of blackness. Under the black gaze one can only go a certain distance in individual freedom before they’re required to pay explicit homage to race, place, and culture. Or, as Parker put it, “he’s not one of us.” Parker and Smith end up being good cop and bad cop for essentially the same faulty construct–race. Both assume it’s reality and both assume the necessity of incorporating it in personal identity. That they have different degrees of tolerance for outward shows or rest their definitions on more or less substantive factors is irrelevant. The real thing not to be missed is that our friends–like all of us–are plagued with a social construction of group identity that’s killing us–sometimes loudly (Parker) and sometimes softly (Smith).
The absurdities of race surface as poignantly in Smith’s comments as they do in Parker’s barber shop rant. On the one hand, Smith says RGIII just “happens to be of African descent,” but on the other hand so random an accident of history and biology should require and result in “the pride they feel at being black.” Put aside for a moment that “being black” is the issue at dispute in the interview and Smith doesn’t bother to define what he means. It’s incongruous to think that descent is happenstance and simultaneously a source of pride. It’s like being proud we had more letter A’s in our alphabet soup than the next guy.
And here’s where we see the problem most clearly. “Race” as an accident of biology, place, time, and social mores provides a monstrously faulty anthropology for understanding ourselves or even expressing appropriate sentiment about personal and group achievement. Had Smith said, “God made RGIII what we call ‘Black’ or ‘African American,’ and it’s no accident RGIII is who he is,” then we all could express glory, thanksgiving and group solidarity in the most important ways. Had someone said, “We’re all made in God’s image, share in His likeness, and are commonly descended from Adam even though God purposed variety in our appearance for His glory,” then the discussion would have been lifted above the narrow human-made confines of “race” and the ridiculousness of either having to prove your “blackness” or to “pay homage to your race” would have been exposed. We owe praise to God. We must all come to belong to God. Indeed, our inspiration must be rooted in God himself.
I know that what I wrote in the paragraph above assumes a Christian point of view. I don’t know whether Parker or Smith would claim to be Christians. But in any event, the entire episode makes it clear that only Christians have a sufficiently powerful answer to the dilemmas of race. For in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. In Christ we’re all being renewed to the image of God in true righteousness and holiness. In Christ, what God made me to be as a __________ [fill in the ethnic blank] will redound to His glory appropriately and intentionally forever. Only a truly Christian anthropology can both affirm who we are in our unity and distinction while at the same time freeing us from slavery to those distinctions. Only the church has the answer to our racial conundrums. Now if only the church would get its house in order on these things so we can raise up Christian journalists and sports commentators who inject Christ into these very important conversations.
Let me get back to sermon preparation. Please pray for my preaching of Micah 4 on Sunday. In the last days God is going to gather the nations to the mountain of the Lord. Men and women from all the peoples of the earth will be taught by God and walk in His ways. Aren’t you glad we’re living in the beginning of the last days and consummation is nearer now than it was when you began reading this post?
P.S.--Some of you will recognize the allusion to Rockwell in the post’s title. Here’s a little something to take you waaay back