Commentary

Robert Griffin III's identity

Black QBs still unable to avoid Catch-22 of answering race question

Updated: December 27, 2012, 12:17 AM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

Robert Griffin III has probably been asked about his own race as much as he's been asked about the NFC East division race.

Through no fault of his own, Griffin's latest comments about being a black quarterback indirectly created an awkward conversation about racial identity.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Jonathan Newton/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin III has spoken loudly with his play this season.

I'm wondering why we're still asking black quarterbacks, well, what it's like being a black quarterback. As if for a moment they've been able to escape the constant reminders.

I'm not sure exactly how or why a routine media session was steered toward race, but Griffin was asked Dec. 12 about how he felt being labeled a black quarterback, which on the surface sounds strange because if there are two things we know for certain about RG III, it's that he is black and he is a quarterback.

"They're always going to try to put you in a box with other African American quarterbacks -- [Michael] Vick, [Cam] Newton, Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon," Griffin III said. "But there's guys, like the guys I just mentioned, Warren Moon, and Doug Williams, who really didn't run that much."

Griffin also added, "you don't ever want to be defined by the color of your skin. You want to be defined by the work ethic and your personality. That's what I strive to do."

There is nothing wrong with what RG III said. In fact, there is so much right with it that it's hard to believe these words came from someone who is only 22 years old.

Because of the controversy ESPN's Rob Parker ignited -- which, sadly, is the same tiresome conversation that black people have wrestled with forever -- very little attention was paid to the significance of what Griffin said or, more importantly, why he even had to address race in the first place.

Asking a black quarterback what it's like to be a black quarterback is a booby-trapped question, and I believe part of the intent behind the query is indeed a racial litmus test. Regardless of how thoughtful the answer is, it's bound to make someone mad.

The irony is that the question itself -- what's it like being a black quarterback -- is also the answer.

Because being a black quarterback means being asked about race incessantly. It means having racial identity questioned. It means, as RG III pointed out, only being compared in the media to other black quarterbacks -- even though the only apparent commonality is race.

It also means carrying the burden of symbolism.

In many cases, athletes of color are celebrated symbols within their communities. There is nothing wrong with racial pride, but Griffin isn't just a terrific rookie quarterback. He's also a black quarterback in the nation's capital -- affectionately known as "Chocolate City" because of its large African-American population -- who is playing for the franchise that still boasts the only black quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl.

Carrying that weight, a question about race to any black quarterback is never harmless. It wasn't for Donovan McNabb, who was subjected to criticism after telling HBO's "Real Sports" in 2007 that black quarterbacks are under more pressure. It wasn't for Newton, who, when asked by ESPN The Magazine if he felt the criticism of him was racially based, awkwardly blamed the failures of Vince Young and JaMarcus Russell and fell into the same racial pit by saying that when Griffin declared for the NFL draft, he wanted people to say that Griffin could " 'be the next Cam Newton' instead of 'He's gonna be the next JaMarcus Russell.'"

No, Cam, that's not what you want people to say. You want people not to be intellectually lazy.

Despite how post-racial we think we are in our society, being a black quarterback is just different. I understand why Griffin wants to be known as just a quarterback.

I'm just not sure if we'll ever let him.

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine