Black Enough, Thin Enough?

Robert Griffin III is a standout African-American quarterback in Washington DC, a largely African-American city. He has an amazing ability to run with the ball, but I have read concerns that he may end up badly injured someday. I have mixed allegiances, but my siblings are all Skins fans, and seem as devoted to RG3 as they were to Sean Taylor. But I just ran across a WTF on Buzzfeed, in which ESPN analyst Rob Parker asks:

“Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?” … “He’s not really. OK, he’s black, he does the thing, but he’s not down with the cause. He’s not one of us. He’s kinda black … but he’s not really like, the guy you want to hang out with cause he’s off to somethin’ else. … I don’t know because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancee, we heard all this talk about he’s a Republican, but there’s no information at all.”

You may have guessed that Parker is black, and apparently he is certain that he is black enough – whatever that means – to question Griffin’s personal life. I think he’s overstepping. Anyway, ESPN is evaluating the situation.

On the other hand, a few days ago I read about the flap over former #1 tennis player Caroline Wozniacki. Tall, blonde Wozniacki was warming up for an exhibition match in Sao Paulo with taller and blonder Maria Sharapova, and went for the joke. Tennis fans know that Sharapova beat Serena Williams to win Wimbledon a long time ago, but has had almost no success against her for many years. So Wozniacki stuffed a towel down the front of her shirt and another towel down the back of her skirt.

In today’s connected world, what happens in Sao Paulo doesn’t stay anywhere. A pic made the rounds and Wozniacki drew criticism for a racist portrayal of Serena. The NY Times Straight Sets blog sums up:

Wozniacki furthered her imitation by adding an uncharacteristic grunt, which drew laughs from the crowd. Landing neutral shots in the middle of the court, Wozniacki did not play much like Williams. But when she won the point she fist-pumped dramatically, and then yanked the towels out of her clothing. … Imitations of the game’s famous figures, including Rafael Nadal and John McEnroe, have become standard fare in exhibitions as players seek to be crowd-pleasers. Even the relentlessly nice Kim Clijsters once re-enacted Williams’s notorious United States Open foot fault controversy while playing to the crowd.

Sherri Shepherd and Whoopi Goldberg objected on The View, Shepherd taking personal offense:

“Inside, it does something to me, because we’ve been made fun of for so long for different parts of our body. And to see Serena Williams reduced to this, I don’t like it. I know they’re friends and I know Serena hasn’t said anything, but…”

Friends is an elastic term in competitive sports, but Fox predictably defended the white girl in Wozniacki’s Serena send-up not racist:

When Williams was sick with blood clots in her lungs and home scared for her life, Wozniacki dropped by her home in Los Angeles to comfort her.

If you look at it out of context, without one tiny bit of research or reporting, this impersonation can be turned into a bitter moment. It was not one. In fact, Wozniacki did a similar impersonation last year that didn’t seem to bother anyone, including Williams. And when Wozniacki did her impression at the exhibition in Brazil, Williams reportedly was in the audience.

Part of the problem is that you have Williams fans who are not tennis fans. For people who don’t know, this probably comes across as someone taking a cold shot at Williams. Maybe they don’t realize that tennis players mimic other players all the time. Every tennis fan has seen video of Novak Djokovic’s on-court impersonations of Maria Sharapova and other players. He did an entire commercial for Head tennis racquets in a blonde wig, ending by saying, “My name is Maria Sharapova and my game is instinct.’’

You can’t expect everyone to understand. But it would be nice if talkers and analysts did, or at least studied up.

There was nothing mean-spirited about Wozniacki’s impression. She was not suggesting that Williams is overweight, or that there is anything wrong with Williams’ body-type. Williams has called herself “bootylicious’’ and talked about her extra “assets.’’ Wozniacki was not insulting the look, but playing it up, like “vavavoom.’’

I’m not convinced. I suspect that Wozniacki meant no offense and that Serena has probably learned that there is no upside to taking offense. I ran the story by my young, black, fellow tennis fan in the office – trying to be neutral. At first he said it was funny, but the more he thought about it, the more he said that Wozniacki probably shouldn’t do that. And therein is the quandary. What is funny within a select group becomes inappropriate in the world audience. Scaring Sharapova with a Serena body is funny to a tennis fan. Calling attention to Serena’s shape probably isn’t funny to a black woman.

So while Parker and his friends are certainly allowed to question RG3’s motivations among themselves, and while Caroline is certainly allowed to poke fun at Serena in private, they have to deal with potential reactions when they broadcast their attitudes to the public.


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