Let's look at the NFL controversy involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and what it tells us about the perceptions of race in America.
Consider the lives of the two men involved in this ordeal.
One player is an enforcer with a troubled past. Picked on as a child for his weight, the boy was schooled to go fist first. One of his coaches at Nebraska went so far as to say that he admired the kid's "spunk." Remember that word.
The other player's life is one of privilege. He grew up with highly educated parents and attended one of the West Coast's premier prep schools. He went to one of the best universities in the world, where he starred in football and studied classics. Yes, classics. When he reached the NFL, he was considered to be "soft." Remember that word.
In Hollywood, the lives of Incognito and Martin would be turned around.
Martin, an African-American, would be the white guy because a black guy studying classics at Stanford would be unbelievable. Aren't black men supposed to be, well, tougher than that?
We've all seen the Hollywood movies or the TV sports segments that follow the trials and tribulations of the fatherless black urchin who, with the help of God and an earthly angel, overcomes the temptations of the street to ascend the heights of gridiron glory.
Martin's story doesn't square with those depictions. He flipped the script, and this somehow made him an alleged target not just for Incognito, but also for his black teammates who viewed the Stanford man as "soft" and -- amazingly -- less "black" than Incognito.
Incognito, the spunky blue-collar kid who held meetings at a strip club and physically and financially hazed rookies, was bestowed the title of "honorary black man." He was even allowed to utter the "N-word" -- presumably with the "ah" ending -- around it.
But let's be clear here. If Incognito were really a black man, his behavior would not be called spunky. It would be called "thuggish."
This "honorary black man" is accused of degrading a black woman at a charity event. Using a golf club to lift her skirt and muttering "Let it rain, let it rain" -- a reference to stripping -- shows Incognito to be more like Simon Legree than Charles Hamilton Houston.
Apparently in the Dolphins' locker room, 400 years of the African-American experience in this country has come to mean that the authentic black male is man at his most primal.
One lesson that should come out of this tragedy is that there is no monolithic African-American culture. The one that many people have come to accept is manufactured by pop culture and media stereotypes.
Different class backgrounds and educational achievements provide a variety of experiences and worldviews. To negate Martin's life as antithetical to being black is to accept the monolith, an idea steeped in racist ideology.
These are issues we need to explore together as a society.
To do that, we all must, as Ralph Ellison once wrote, "change the joke and slip the yoke."
Fred McKissack is a writer based in Indiana. His latest book is Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love (Chronicle, 2012). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Fred McKissack.
Photo: Flickr user Avinash Kunnath, creative commons licensed.