Seahawks' Russell Wilson Controversy Shows Dangers of Racial Authenticity Tests

(AP Photo/Tom DiPace)

Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) during an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers, Sunday, October 26, 2014, in Charlotte. 


Whether Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is “black enough” is beside the point. The real issue is why we are still talking about racial authenticity at all.

“My feeling on this—and it’s backed up by several interviews with Seahawks players—is that some of the black players think Wilson isn't black enough,” Mike Freeman writes at Bleacher Report, reporting on tensions between just-traded teammate Percy Harvin and Wilson, including a locker room reportedly divided into pro/con camps.  

“This is an issue that extends outside of football, into African-American society—though it's gotten better recently,” Freeman writes. “Well-spoken blacks are seen by some other blacks as not completely black. Some of this is at play.”

The “Am I Black Enough?” racial authenticity card is a recurring theme in the lives of black athletes in particular, and black people in general. Concerns about racial authenticity are always present, especially for those who are biracial or somewhat more racially ambiguous as Wilson, with his light skin tone and curly hair, is believed to be.

Being a scholar of racial identity, even I found myself searching the Internet to find “proof” of Wilson’s blackness. Of course, the rational, scholarly side of me knows how problematic this is. Notions of racial authenticity are ideologically driven and fraught with limited, stereotypical ideas about what it means to be black. Nevertheless, in matters of so-called realness, emotion often replaces reason.

Ironically, many blacks don’t realize notions of racial authenticity are dangerously close to the one-drop rule. At one point in our nation’s history, a legal principle held that individuals with even “one drop” of African blood, any trace of sub-Saharan African ancestry, would be considered black. This was an obviously racist concept intended to keep white blood from being “tainted” with black blood.

Yet, here we are in 2014 still using racial litmus tests. We may not be using the language of the one-drop rule, but the mindset and logic that created the rule is not altogether different from the mindset of racial authenticity.

How do you talk? What music do you listen to? How do you dress? Where did you grow up? Who do you socialize with? How do you act? Who do you marry? These are examples of racial litmus test questions many blacks ask of one another to determine levels of authentic blackness. 

When Barack Obama was a relatively unknown U.S. senator from Chicago declaring his intention to run for president, some members of the black community questioned his blackness. After all, how black could he really be having a white mother? And what could he possibly know about the black experience? For goodness sakes, he was born in Hawaii! How many black people live there? What is even more troubling is these concerns were held by educated people. For example, Cornel West, a brilliant African-American philosopher, academic, activist and public intellectual, once said, “I think my dear brother Barack Obama has a certain fear of free black men. … It’s understandable. As a young brother who grows up in a white context, brilliant African father, he’s always had to fear being a white man with black skin. All he has known culturally is white. He is just as human as I am, but that is his cultural formation.”

To translate: West was really saying Obama ain’t really authentically black, but it ain’t his fault. This was nothing more than an academic version of what we call in the black community “playing the dozens,” also known as “signifying,”“joning” and “cracking.” This is the African American oral tradition of exchanging insults back and forth as a test of wit and self-control, except in this case Obama wasn’t there to participate and defend himself.

Few accusations are more hurtful or personal among black people than to have one’s blackness questioned. I imagine this may be the emotional equivalent of calling progressive, activist white people “racist” when they do not believe themselves to be so. These concerns are especially salient among black youth, who are constantly trying to be accepted among their peers. Of course, it is normal to want to be accepted, especially by people with whom you most strongly identify. This is a part of human nature, but nowhere does it seem to be as prevalent and self-destructive as evidenced in the black community.

This tension drives the new prime-time comedy Blackish. While we can laugh at the show’s satirical notions of black authenticity, it’s really not a laughing matter when the black card is pulled and you become the target of the Soul Patrol.

Bernard Hopkins played this black card in 2011 in his public (and mostly one-sided) feud with former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb when he declared McNabb wasn’t black enough, or tough enough, compared with him, former Eagles quarterback Michael Vick or Terrell Owens, the mercurial former Eagles wide receiver.

In the 2011 ESPN documentary on "The Fab Five," Jalen Rose discussed why he hated Duke and everything he thought the university stood for: “Schools like Duke didn’t recruit players like me,” Rose said. “They only recruited black players who were Uncle Toms.” Rose admitted he was jealous of Grant Hill because he came from a great black family, and because they were “who the world accepts” and “we are who the world hates.” Hill’s response in the New York Times was brilliantly effective in exposing the false and harmful assumptions about him and his family’s level of racial authenticity.

I sometimes wonder how the Soul Patrol would judge me. Hey, I am the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Black Psychology. That’s very black, right? One point. I am a member of black organizations. That’s very black, right? I go to a black church. Hallelujah, give me another check for “very black.” Two points. I am an avid watcher of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Ooh, not so black, judging by attendance demographics. Poor Russell Wilson, I know how you feel.



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