To and ’Fro
Underneath the Vick-Kaepernick Dust-Up: Black Respectability Politics
Every black male gets what’s going on here. We all have to dress and keep our hair a certain way. Sometimes we feel like it. Sometimes we don’t.
On Monday, former NFL quarterback Michael Vick appeared on FS1’s Speak for Yourself, and when asked about any advice he could give to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who still has not signed with a new team, Vick said, “First thing we’ve got to get Colin to do is cut his hair” if he wants a team to sign him.
To no one’s surprise, Twitter lambasted Vick left and right. And on Tuesday, Kaepernick tweeted the definition of Stockholm Syndrome (it “appears when an abused victim develops a kind of respect and empathy towards their abuser,” reads the beginning of Kaepernick’s tweet), obviously taking a swipe at Vick for now carrying water for an establishment that used to trash him. Vick then tweeted a statement not quite apologizing but saying Kaepernick’s hair has nothing to do with him not being on a NFL roster… “Trust and believe what I said was not in malice.”
FS1 Undisputed co-host and former NFL player Shannon Sharpe spoke out against Vick’s comments on his show, saying: “Kaepernick has never been arrested, he committed no crime. What image does he need to portray?” Many others on social media also highlighted how Vick committed a crime, and Kaepernick has not, so comparing their situations is absurd.
But Vick’s comments remind us of the sustained impact of respectability politics within the black community. It’s the code of conduct aimed at ensuring that African Americans, and other minorities, appear clean, safe, and presentable to a white audience. Violating it can result in an aura of criminality regardless of whether a crime has been committed.
Generations of African-American families, especially in the South, have been forced to navigate the delicate balance between respectability and black identity as a means to survive.
I’m around the same age as Vick, and we are both from the South. He’s from Virginia, and I’m from Georgia. When he helmed the Atlanta Falcons, he was my hometown quarterback for nearly a decade.
When I was a kid, Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham were the black quarterbacks that young African-American males were supposed look up to. They were very clean cut.
When my father would watch them play, he’d always mention how white Americans did not believe that black athletes were smart enough to play quarterback. He was proud of how these two had proven them wrong. He would mention how Moon in the late ’70s was forced to play in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton Eskimos for years before the NFL would give him a chance.
Moon was a nine-time Pro-Bowler and is in the NFL and CFL Halls of Fame, and for years he threw the most beautiful, pinpoint spiral in pro football. But at one point the NFL had decided that he wasn’t even good enough to be in the league.
In the early 2000s, during Vick’s peak, he hung out with Ludacris, Jermaine Dupri, and the rest of the hip-hop community. Vick was a revolutionary figure who rewrote the script of what a black quarterback could do. You did not have to be as clean cut and safe as Moon and Cunningham. You were allowed to be a black person and viewed in a positive light without needing to conform to arbitrary standards of white respectability.
Yet as we all know, Vick’s fall from the top came swift and it came hard. His conviction in 2008 for running a dog-fighting ring ended the Vick show in Atlanta. However, his conviction hardly diminished the black community’s affection for him. Vick made a tragic mistake, admitted as such, served his time, and committed himself to learning from it and becoming a solid citizen. The crime was vile, but seeking to destroy or discard a man did not seem like the best solution.
The black community was willing to forgive Vick, and welcome him back as long as he learned from his mistake. We were genuinely taken aback at the incessant demonizing from quarters of the white community. We felt then, and still do now, that it was absurd how they perceived Vick’s animal abuse as more significant than the terror, police violence, and inequality that African Americans regularly face.
In the South the expectation of being “presentable” casts a shadow over black life. From the time I was young, my parents always wanted me to look “presentable” and be respectful. I used to iron my clothes every day in elementary school.
However, as I got older it became clearer that these standards largely consisted of catering to the whims of another community and not necessarily advancing mine. Over the years, I became more indifferent to these standards and largely objected to playing the game at all. Neither whites nor blacks knew what to make of me.
As an adult, I have plenty of days when I’ll inject a “flaw” or something “unpresentable” into my appearance, and I’ll wonder if I’m helping or hurting myself. In many ways, it is a lose-lose scenario.
Vick rehabilitated himself and found a path back into the NFL that few people thought was possible. In many ways, he should be the perfect person to offer advice to a controversial young black quarterback looking to recover from a massive fall and rebuild his career. Yet the advice he gives sounds so dehumanizing.
“Even if he puts cornrows in there, I don’t think he should represent himself in that way… just go clean cut… Thing that he needs to do is just try to be presentable,” Vick said Monday.
You want Vick, a one-time hero of black identity in the NFL, to describe how you can rise to the top by celebrating and not suppressing your blackness, and there’s a sadness that comes with his inability to do so.
Of course, we can debate Kaepernick’s talent—Vick, Moon, and Cunningham all had better careers—but that’s not really what this is about. This is about his position on the national anthem and his political activism. And now it’s about his hair? And how he needs to present himself to gain acceptance to an audience that largely remains indifferent to police brutality and racial injustice? Michael Vick shouldn’t feed into this destructive narrative.