- ESPN article about a "white" Michael Vick got this author thinking
- Readers can make assumptions about authors' race and culture
- This anonymous writer invites you to guess those attributes from this essay
Go ahead, read the headline again. It does say "Writer's black" and not "Writer's block." No doubt, overlooking a mistake like that would be a gigantic copy editing if not editorial blunder. But think about it. How often do we do the editorializing in our own minds before we even start to read a writer's work? A recent article by ESPN The Magazine writer Toure' about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick got me to thinking.
The article and provocative headline pose the question, "What if Michael Vick were white?"
"Hmmm," I wondered out loud to another writer sitting next to me.
"Hmmm," the writer said back to me, following up with a "That's deep." Then we sat quietly for a few moments looking around the room, pondering. We didn't say much else, but the incident and the article stuck with me for a few days.
It stuck not because of the sports angle, but for the broader ramifications of his questions. It made me think about all the times I had to defend myself for something I said or wrote simply because of my gender, background and any other mechanism we use to define ourselves and other people.
I thought about all the times I had been called privileged by African-Americans, biased by whites, narrow-minded by Hispanics, too sensitive by men and unfeeling by women, lefty by conservatives or right-wing by liberals. And I wondered what the response would have been if the reader knew nothing about my background or me.
What would it be like? So I decided to write this article anonymously and provide you the reader with a sort of written Rorschach test. I could be white. I could be black. I could be Hispanic or Asian or male or female. Fill in the blanks.
Straight away, I must admit that I have a completely selfish reason for doing this. The filter of my own experiences had duped me, too. In all honesty, when I saw Toure's byline, my mind immediately leaped to the finish, drawing a conclusion that an African-American writer would probably go easy on Vick.
But I caught myself, stopped, and much like I do in both my personal and professional lives, I put the writer's ethnicity aside and kept reading. So, in an effort to make it easier for you to do the same, I'm removing my byline as I assess the racial and cultural differences that might have steered Michael Vick onto the path of dog fighting, his demise and eventual redemption.
In one of the neighborhoods of my youth, blacks and whites had vastly different relationships with animals; mainly dogs. I'm generalizing here, but whites typically treated their dogs as part of their families. The dogs lived indoors, and they climbed onto sofas and into beds at will.
But many blacks did not want to eat at a home where dogs or cats had the run of the house. The logic went: An animal in the house meant animal hair in the food.
And by the same token, (again, a generalization) whites were generally upset by their black friends who treated their animals as not human. Dogs and cats were mostly kept outdoors unless the temperatures dipped below freezing or swelled to triple digits.
Both black people and white people kept any chickens outdoors, and the only violence the fowl faced was getting their necks wrung on the way to becoming Sunday dinner.
But for Hispanics I knew, cock fighting was not only accepted, but also expected. Those who partook didn't understand why it's OK to slaughter a rooster but it's not OK to have them fight. Spaniards celebrate bullfighting. Americans flock to the rodeo. And however you feel about any one of these probably has a lot to do with your relationship with animals growing up.
Just as the ESPN article makes no excuses for Vick's behavior, this one doesn't either. Part of my mission is to help you understand that people from different backgrounds have different feelings about animals. And perhaps it has more to do with where you come from (culture) rather than the color of your skin. But in America, race somehow pervades the discussion on just about any subject.
Even Toure' admits it in his own article when he questions the headline. He writes: "This question makes me cringe. It is so facile, naive, shortsighted and flawed that it is meaningless. Whiteness comes with great advantages, but it's not a get-out-of-every-crime-free card. Killing dogs is a heinous crime that disgusts and frightens many Americans. I'm certain white privilege would not be enough to rescue a white NFL star caught killing dogs."