I can’t lie. The first thing I did when I saw a whiteface Michael Vick was laugh.
It is a (very) off color (pun intended) attempt to open up conversations about race and sports. C’mon, America. We wanna talk about race? Of course not! That’s so 2008.
I’ve tackled the idea of whiteface in a previous post that contextualized it as a 20th century African American rebuttal to the minstrelsy tradition situated in 19th century white supremacist discourse. But ESPN: the Magazine (and much of writer Toure’s article that it supposedly complemented) got us messed up. Aside from the pathological and straight up dumbfounding ways that both Toure and the picture essentialize black masculinity there was some serious swagger jacking involved. ESPN: the Magazine ain’t the first one to use whiteface. George Schuyler would be pissed.
For the literary aloof, George Schuyler was a master satirist and conservative kicking folks’ racial politics in the throat during the Harlem Renaissance or lack thereof. Schuyler is perhaps most recognized for his essay “The Negro Art Hokum” which dismisses the idea of black American art as essentialist and nonexistent. But it is Schuyler’s satiric novel Black No More, released in 1931, that situates him as a predecessor of progressive racial thought, weaving a delightfully absurd narrative that promotes a similarly absurd solution to America’s race problem. Make everyone white.
Only in this article, Touré wasn’t analyzing the constructed concept of “race;” instead, he was making sweeping generalizations about Black culture, and reinforcing coded cultural and class stereotypes. Throughout my reading this article on Michael Vick, instead of asking myself the question I was supposed to—what if Vick were white—I found myself asking instead, what if Touré were white?
Now, before I go any further, let me say that I’m no fan of Michael Vick. I think what he did to those poor animals was horrible. And I’m also past tired of Black (and some White) folks trying to give Michael Vick a bleeding heart pass for inhumane treatment to God’s creatures and whining about he caught a bad break because he was African American. I don’t care what race he was; I think he should have done way more time than he already did.
Yes, I said it. Snatch my Black card, and I don’t care. I can always get me another one down at the Target.
But let me say that the sort of strange racial rhetoric on the other side of this debate, about the “nature” of Black men and Black culture is infuriating as well. And seriously tacky. In Touré’s defense, this rhetoric was going on long before he waded into this fray with his singular, accented moniker and “throwback jam” Enlightenment philosophy.
However, Touré’s article takes this rhetoric to the next, unsavory, near-skull measuring level. Again, this article is not about sports, though Touré begins with bloviated, quasi-lyrical language, using such terms like “in the pocket” and (I guess) establishing his Black bonafides with the use of the Black vernacular, as when he writes: “I’m not saying that a black QB who stands in the pocket ain’t playing black. [Emphasis mine.]
What the heck does “playing black” mean? I’m not even a sports fan and I know that’s not one of those complicated technical terms. And if a White writer said some sort of essentialist crap like somebody “plays black” that we’d be all over him. Why doesn’t Touré just start talking about antebellum slave breeding practices that produced better athletes while he’s at it? Like we haven’t already heard that one before.
Then, Touré goes on to imply that is Michael Vick were white and middle-class, he wouldn’t have been dogfighting in the first place.
While acknowledging the advantages of whiteness and the privileges that are generated because of the structures of American racism, Touré decides to focus on how a hypothetical racial transformation would change Vick’s life in other ways. “The problem with the ‘switch the subject’s race to determine if it’s racism’ test runs much deeper than that. It fails to take into account that switching someone’s race changes his entire existence.,” notes Touré. Among others things, he asks “Would a white kid have been introduced to dogfighting at a young age and have it become normalized?” The answer that Touré seems to come up with is no, seemingly arguing that his participation in dog fighting results from his upbringing “in the projects of Newport News, VA” without a father (he also argues that his ability to bankroll a dogfighting enterprise came about because of his class status that resulted from his NFL career, an opportunity that came about because he like “many young black men see sports as the only way out”).
Here, Touré plays into the dominant discourse that links blackness, a culture poverty and presumably hip-hop culture to dogfighting, thereby erasing the larger history of dogfighting. According to Evans, Gauthier and Forsyth (1998) in “Dogfighting: Symbolic expression and validation of masculinity,” dogfighting “represents a symbolic attempts at attaining and maintaining honor and status, which in the (predominantly white, male, working-class) dogfighting subculture, are equated with masculine identity.” Although the popularity of dogfighting has increased within urban communities, particularly amongst young African Americans, over the last fifteen years it remains a sport tied to and emanating from rural white America.
It should not be surprising that six (South Dakota; Wyoming; West Virginia; Nevada; Texas; and Montana) of the seven states with the lowest rankings from the Humane Society are states with sizable white communities (New York is the other state). Given that dogfighting is entrenched and normalized within a myriad of communities, particularly white working-class communities within rural America, it is both factually questionable and troubling to link dogfighting to the black community.
Touré moves on from his argument about a culture of poverty in an effort blame Vick’s family structure for his involvement in dog fighting “Here’s another question: If Vick grew up with the paternal support that white kids are more likely to have (72 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers compared with 29 percent of white children), would he have been involved in dogfighting?” Having already taken this argument apart in regards to Colin Cowherd’s recycling of the Moynihan Report, let me recycle some of my own words:
The idea that 71% of black children grow up without fathers is at one level the result of a misunderstanding of facts and at another level the mere erasure of facts. It would seem that Mr. Cowherd is invoking the often-cited statistics that 72% of African American children were born to unwed mothers, which is significantly higher than the national average of 40 %. Yet, this statistic is misleading and misused as part of a historically defined white racial project. First and foremost, child born into an unmarried family is not the same is growing up without a father. In fact, only half of African American children live in single-family homes. Yet, this again, only tells part of the story. The selective invoking of these statistics, while emblematic of the hegemony of heterosexist patriarchy, says very little about whether or not a child grows up with two parents involved in their lives. According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a sizable portion of those children born to single mothers are born into families that can be defined as “marriage like.” 32% of unmarried parents are engaged in ‘visiting unions” (in a romantic relationship although living apart), with 50% of parents living together without being married. In other words, the 72% says little about the presence of black fathers (or mothers for that matter). Likewise, this number says very little about the levels of involvement of fathers (and mothers), but rather how because of the media, popular culture and political discourses, black fatherhood is constructed “as an oxymoron” all while black motherhood is defined as “inadequate” and “insufficient.”
In other words, as illustrated Roberta L. Coles and Charles Green, The Myth of the Missing Black Father, “non-residence” is not the same as being absentee; it says nothing about involvement and the quality of parenting. As such, the efforts to links the myths and stereotypes about black families to explain or speculate about Michael Vick’s past involvement (what is the statue of limitations of writing on this subject?) with dogfighting does little beyond reinforcing scapegoats and criminalizing discourses.
The argument here that race matters in Michael Vick’s life feels like a cover for rehashing old and tired theories about single mothers, culture of poverty, and hip-hop/urbanness as the root of many problems. Of course race matters for not only Michael Vick but also everyone else residing in America. This is America, arguments about post-racialness notwithstanding.
Race mattered during the coverage of dogfighting and continues to matter for Vick in this very moment. It also matters given history. As Melissa Harris-Perry notes, race matters in relationship to Michael Vick (and the support he has received from the African American community) in part because of the larger history of white supremacist use of dogs against African Americans.
I sensed that same outrage in the responses of many black people who heard Tucker Carlson call for Vick’s execution as punishment for his crimes. It was a contrast made more raw by the recent decision to give relatively light sentences to the men responsible for the death of Oscar Grant. Despite agreeing that Vick’s acts were horrendous, somehow the Carlson’s moral outrage seemed misplaced. It also seemed profoundly racialized. For example, Carlson did not call for the execution of BP executives despite their culpability in the devastation of Gulf wildlife. He did not denounce the Supreme Court for their decision in US v. Stevens (April 2010) which overturned a portion of the 1999 Act Punishing Depictions of Animal Cruelty. After all with this “crush” decision the Court seems to have validated a marketplace for exactly the kinds of crimes Vick was convicted of committing. For many observers, the decision to demonize Vick seems motivated by something more pernicious than concern for animal welfare. It seems to be about race.
Race and racism have impacted his life in a myriad of ways. The continue significance of race matters in the ways in which this article plays upon and perpetuates cultural arguments that seemingly erase race, replacing it with flattened discussions of culture. The power of white privilege and the impacts of racism, segregation, and inequality are well documented, leaving me to wonder if the point of Touré’s piece is not that race matters but rather that culture matters. And this is where we agree because culture is important here; a CULTURE of white supremacy does matter when thinking about Michael Vick or anything else for that matter.
Special thanks to Guthrie Ramsey, James Peterson, and Oliver Wang who all, in different ways, encouraged me to write a response.
In the midst of the NFL lockout, Adrian Peterson joined a chorus of players who were both critical of the league’s owners and commissioner Roger Goodell, describing professional football as akin to “modern-day slavery”:
People kind of laugh at that, but there are people working at regular jobs who get treated the same way, too. With all the money … the owners are trying to get a different percentage, and bring in more money. I understand that; these are business-minded people. Of course this is what they are going to want to do. I understand that; it’s how they got to where they are now. But as players, we have to stand our ground and say, ‘Hey — without us, there’s no football.’ There are so many different perspectives from different players, and obviously we’re not all on the same page — I don’t know. I don’t really see this going to where we’ll be without football for a long time; there’s too much money lost for the owners. Eventually, I feel that we’ll get something done.
Although not the first person to use the slavery analogy, with William C. Rhoden, Larry Johnson, and Warren Sapp all offering this rhetorical comparison, his comments elicited widespread commendation and criticism. Dave Zirin notes that he was denounced as “ungrateful,” “out of touch,” “an idiot” and, in the darker recesses of the blogosphere, far worse.” Like much of sports media, the controversy quickly reached a zenith with columnists and fans ultimately focusing on other issues, spectacles, and controversies, although never forgetting his insertion of race into the world of sports.
Recently, however, an ESPN columnist brought a spotlight back onto his comments, celebrating Peterson’s determination to right his rhetorical wrongs. In “Adrian Peterson continues righting a wrong” Kevin Seifert cites not only Peterson’s efforts to apologize for his “unfortunate analogy,” but his decision to get involved with anti-slavery efforts as part of a larger effort to make amends. “If some good came of Adrian Peterson’s unfortunate use of analogies this offseason, it’s this: It forced one of the NFL’s highest-profile players into a bond with two of the world’s most prominent advocates for ending human trafficking.”
Citing his involvement with Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s DNA Foundation, a group committed to “rais[ing] awareness about child sex slavery, chang[ing] the cultural stereotypes that facilitate this horrific problem, and rehabilitat[ing] innocent victims,” Seifert argues that Peterson missed-used analogy reflected a lack of knowledge about human trafficking. “As a professional and respectful public figure,” Peterson would never knowingly make such a silly and harmful comparison had he known about the realities of human trafficking and child sex slavery. At least that seems to be the argument emanating from this piece. “I’ve always believed that Peterson wasn’t making any sort of political statement,” writes Seifert, whose column about Peterson’s comments brought up the real-life circumstances of modern-day slavery. “There was no reason to think he harbored some previously unexpressed level of insensitivity. Like many of us, he probably just didn’t know that in 2010, 12.3 million people world-wide were in forced or bonded labor. To that end, Peterson jumped at the chance to work with Moore and Kutcher.”
Seifert’s celebration of Peterson’s PSA is questionable given his efforts to cite this as evidence of his efforts to do penance along the path to redemption. At one level, it is unclear if the PSA was in actuality a response to the controversy surrounding the comments (the interview took place in March and the PSA filming taking place shortly thereafter in April). At another level, and more importantly, Peterson had nothing to apologize for, and therefore his involvement with an organization committed to thwarting modern-day slave sex trafficking has nothing to do with his past comments about the NFL.
The relative silence of the media regarding his PSA, especially in comparison to the ubiquitous level of criticism that he experienced for deploying “the S-word” (Zirin), demonstrates that irrespective of his actions it will be difficult for him to secure redemption in the eyes of mainstream America. Richard King and I wrote about the precarious path to redemption experienced by many black athletes in wake of controversies in “Lack of Black Opps: Kobe Bryant and the Difficult Path of Redemption” (Journal of Sport and Social Issues). There we argue,
The media and public fascinations with Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and other Black athletes accused of personal and/or criminal transgressions should remind us of what a prominent place race, redemption, and respectability play in sport today. Sport media not only rely on the White racial frame but also play a leading role in its reproduction. In this frame, Blackness has overdetermined the actions of African American athletes from O. J. Simpson, Mick Tyson, and Barry Bonds to Ron Artest, Shani Davis, and more recently Marion Jones, Michael Vick, Santonio Holmes and Tiger Woods, creating a context in which interpretations and outcomes for Black and White athletes vary greatly. . . . Yet what is clear is in spite of the celebration of the comeback stories of Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, or even Michael Vick, their Blackness, and the broader significations associated with their Black bodies contains and limits their public rehabilitation. Just as their Blackness continues to confine the meaning of their bodies inside and outside of the sports world, their past “mistakes” and “misfortunes” (as Black men) cannot be outrun, out maneuvered, and even controlled.
In other words, while recognizing the unfairness in demanding redemption from Peterson for comments about exploitation and abuse through a deployed slavery analogy, he faces a difficult challenge given the ways in which race and the associated tropes of the “ungrateful,” and “militant” black athlete governs over Peterson in wake of these comments. Yet, the specific nature of the PSA itself lends itself toward some sort of redemption.
Peterson appears in a PSA as part of DNA’s “Real Men” campaign, which includes spots from Bradley Cooper (“Real men know to make a meal”), Sean Penn (“Real Men know how to use an Iron”) and Jamie Foxx (“Real Men know how to use the remote.”) In his PSA, Peterson is sitting in a living room befitting of a member of the aristocracy (or at least the American upper-class). Confirming his class status and respectability, Peterson simultaneously represents an authentic manhood, able to start a fire by merely rubbing his hands together. Unlike other men, Peterson embodies a true and enviable manhood, evident in his physical prowess and his economic prowess. In this regard, his blackness is muted by a desired class- and gender-based identity.
Peterson’s represented identity is an important backdrop for both his purported redemption resulting from his participation in this campaign and the PSA itself. The narrative argument offered within the campaign is that “real men don’t buy girls,” and that “real men” don’t participate in “child sex slavery.” Peterson, as a man who can start a fire with his bare hands, and who is economically successful (not to mention someone who make defenders look silly) is already a real man within a hegemonic frame; his stance against sex slavery is but another signifier of a real masculinity, all of which is constructed as important attracting women. The PSA ends with a young woman asking, “Are you a real man,” followed by a clear reminder: “I prefer a real man.” At this level, the PSA is disturbing in that it tells viewers to oppose childhood sex slavery because that is what real men do and because women of age find such a stance attractive.
In a world where 12 million people are enslaved and where 2 million children are bought into the global sex trade, it is rather simplistic (and comforting) to reduce this injustice to a faulty masculinity. Given that sex trafficking, according to the United Nations, involves “127 countries of origin, 98 transit countries and 137 destination countries” it is rather dubious to reduce the problem to a single construction of bad masculinity.
Catherine MacKinnon makes this clear in her analysis of global sex trafficking:
If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York’s brothels? Would we be sexual and reproductive slaves? Would we be bred, worked without pay our whole lives, burned when our dowry money wasn’t enough or when men tired of us, starved as widows when our husbands died (if we survived his funeral pyre)?
She notes further the links between sexual violence, heterosexism, and dominant notions of masculinity
Male dominance is sexual. Meaning: men in particular, if not men alone, sexualize hierarchy… Recent feminist work… on rape, battery, sexual harassment, sexual abuse of children, prostitution, and pornography supports [this]. These practices, taken together, express and actualize the distinctive power of men over women in society; their effective permissibility confirms and extends it.”(In Dunlap)
The links between sex trafficking and patriarchy and misogyny, along with racism, xenophobia, and global geo-politics is further illustrated by comments offered during a NGO forum, which among other things dispels arguments about “bad apples,” individual pathologies, and “real/unreal” men:
Trafficking in persons is a form of racism that is recognized as a contemporary form of slavery and is aggravated by the increase in racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. The demand side in trafficking is created by a globalized market, and a patriarchal notion of sexuality. Trafficking happens within and across borders, largely in conjunction with prostitution (In Agathangelous and Ling).
In other words, “real manhood,” as codified legally, as defined culturally, and as constructed ideologically not only sanctions sexual violence but also promotes its very existence. Child sex trafficking reflects the logic of hegemonic masculinity. While comforting to imagine the problem of child sex trafficking as an aberrant and abhorrent masculinity, this injustice has nothing to do with real or a desirable manhood. It is about power, hierarchies, and the systemic dehumanization of women, particularly women of color.
The problem of slavery is real and reflects the systemic and historic manifestations of sexism (along with racism and colonization). To imagine this as a problem of a faulty masculinity does not work to eradicate the problem. While I certainly applaud the efforts of DNA, and celebrated Peterson’s involvement with a campaign committed to raising awareness about the painful realities of human trafficking, the narrative leads us back to the same place.
Taking a stand against child sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence reflects a willingness to embrace a feminist ethos, not one of “a real man.” The struggle against sexual violence, whether it be rape or sex trafficking, should not be about redeeming and celebrating REAL men, Adrian Peterson, Justin Timberlake (who shaves with a chain saw), or anyone else, but challenging the injustices that result from hegemonic patriarchy. How about we make a PSA about real resistance and real transformation rather than real men!