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December 21, 2012

Crossing The Color Line! Lesson Learned

Derek Shackelford

While there are myriad issues in the world in which we live that need to be addressed, what may affect us directly is the one we place at the top of the priority ladder.


Back in 1903, W.E.B. Dubois wrote that “The problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line.” Well, let us add that a continuing problem of the 21st Century is that of the color line.


Two recent events highlight this on a national perspective. Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist who happens to be an African-American woman, was fired for responding to a Facebook post that was directed at the appearance of her hair.


As it may appear on the surface, things are not always relegated to a black and white discussion because ESPN analyst Rob Parker drew universal attention on the questioning of Washington Redskins’ quarterback Robert Griffin III. What is interesting – or rather disappointing – about Mr. Parker’s comments were that he was questioning Griffin’s blackness based on some superficial litmus test.


Both of these instances are shallow attempts at a serious dialogue on race if that was the intent by the Facebook poster and Rob Parker.


Emmitt Vascouco posted a comment to KTBS 3 News in Shreveport, LA. The poster stated this:


"the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the onlt [sic] thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv."


Ms. Lee’s response was educational and dignified:


Hello Emmitt – I am the "black lady" to which you are referring. My name is Rhonda Lee. Nice to meet you. I am sorry you don't like my ethnic hair. And no, I don't have cancer. I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn't grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don't find it necessary. I'm very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn't a reason to not achieve their goals. Conforming to one standard isn't what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that. Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thanks for watching."


At first, second or third glance, Ms. Lee’s response is professional and does not cross any professional boundaries, but apparently KTBS 3 News brass did not think so. She was fired for her response.


The reason she was fired? Mr. Lee violated company policy on social media. Interesting enough, KTBS 3 News has a public Facebook page. Instead of using this as a time to educate, enlighten and inform the masses, KTBS 3 News has caused more of a firestorm because of its lack of common sense and its inept decision.


ESPN’s Rob Parker’s comments are another story all within itself when he appeared on the daily debate show First Take December 13. During a segment on the topic of RG III as an African American quarterback, Mr. Parker opined what could be mildly called ignorant:


“Is he a brother or is he a cornball brother? Well, he’s black; he kind of does his thing. But he’s not really down with the cause, he’s not one of us. He’s kind of black. But he’s not really the guy you’d really want to hang out with because he’s off to do something else.”


Parker continued:


 “Well, because I want to find out about him. I don’t know, because I keep hearing these things. We all know he has a white fiancé. There was all this talk about he’s a Republican, which, there’s no information at all. I’m just trying to dig deeper as to why he has an issue.”


These comments are laced with so many typical stereotypes. What does Mr. Griffin being black really have to do with the other comments made by Mr. Parker? The answer is: absolutely nothing!


Mr. Parker’s comments were so out of bounds and troublesome that loquacious panelist Stephen A. Smith was somewhat at a loss for words – which very rarely happens, if ever. ESPN could have used this segment as an opportunity for journalistic integrity by using this as a teachable moment and taking a stand on principle. The network decided to show the program again during the 12:00 – 2:00 timeframe.


Subsequently, Mr. Parker was suspended until further notice. Earlier this week, he offered an apology via Twitter:


I blew it and I'm sincerely sorry," Parker wrote. "I completely understand how the issue of race in sports is a sensitive one and needs to be handled with great care. Perhaps most importantly, the attention my words have brought to one of the best and brightest stars in all of sports is an unintended and troubling result. Robert Griffin III is a talented athlete who not only can do great things on the field, but off the field handles himself in a way we are all taught – with dignity, respect and pride. I've contacted his agent with hopes of apologizing to Robert directly. As I reflect on this and move forward, I will take the time to consider how I can continue to tackle difficult, important topics in a much more thoughtful manner."


While Mr. Parker’s apology is commendable, he should be dismissed from the First Take program. He was given multiple opportunities during the segment to retract his statements. Instead he refused and even days later stood by what he said.


Particularly in these two situations there is enough blame to go around. So, where does this leave us and we go forward from here? Have we really, honestly, come to grips with the issue of race in this country? Does everything with race simply include black and white? Apparently not – Mr. Parker has just upped the ante with his comments.


I must say I have skepticism when someone says to me that they don’t see color. That sounds good, but not so true. It is okay for us to say that we see color and race. It is a part of who we are and that should not be defined or denied.


The real problem results when we make assumptions, judgments and limitations based on this alone. If we can learn anything out of these two recent situations – we all should be able to say: Lesson learned.


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