The N-word again. Of course.
Six years after the NAACP staged its symbolic burial, that word has proven rumors of its demise greatly exaggerated.
In just the last few weeks we’ve had the following: Richie Incognito, a white player for the Miami Dolphins, tags a black teammate, Jonathan Martin, with that epithet and black players defend the white guy because he’s an “honorary” brother; Matt Barnes of the Los Angeles Clippers tweets the word in criticizing his teammates and says people who have a problem with that should “get used to it;” Trent Williams, a black player for Washington’s professional football team (speaking of racial slurs) is accused of using the word against Roy Ellison, a black referee, a charge Williams denies.
Then it gets worse. The mushrooming controversies prompt two African-American NBA analysts, Charles Barkley and Michael Wilbon, to defend their usage of the N-word. And it’s not just the jockocracy, either. Last week in The New York Times, celebrated social critic Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is black, made the old “context” argument; i.e., it’s OK if we say it, but it’s not OK if you say it. In defending the N-word as an “in-word” Coates noted how some women will jokingly call other women by a misogynistic term or some gay people will laughingly use a homophobic slur in talking with or about one another.
Some of us would say that’s not such a good look, either. Some of us think there is cause for dismay when women, gay people or any put-upon people adopt the terminology of their oppressors as self-definition.
But the larger point is this: so what? Like it or not, the N-word is not like the words used to denigrate women and gay people or, for that matter, Italian, Irish or Jewish people, simply because the experiences those peoples endured in this country do not compare with those of black people.
The N-word is unique. It was present at the act of mass kidnap that created “black America,” it drove the ship to get here, signed the contracts at flesh auctions on Southern ports as mother was torn from child, love from love and self from self. It had a front-row center seat for the acts of blood, rape, castration, exclusion and psychological destruction by which the created people were kept down and in their place. The whole weight of our history dictates that word cannot be used except as an expression of contempt for blacks. The only difference when a Matt Barnes or Ta-Nehisi Coates uses it is that the contempt is black on black.
“Context?” That argument grows more threadbare every time it’s made. It may also be growing less effective in cowing white people of good will. As reporter Richard Prince recently noted in his online “Journal-isms” column, a number of white journalists have refused to be silenced on this. That includes Mike Wise of the Washington Post, who wrote a brave piece confronting those who would deny him the right to be concerned because of his race.
“That doesn’t work for me,” he said. “I deserve a seat at this table. This is about the world my 3-year-old is going to live in.” Indeed, it is about the world all our children will inherit. Black people are not walled off from that world, cannot commit this sin of self-denigration in our little corner of existence and command everyone else to ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter.
Our stubborn insistence otherwise speaks volumes. As does the fact that some so determinedly defend the indefensible. How can we require others to respect us when this word suggests we don’t respect ourselves?
So burying the N-word, well-intentioned, as it was, turns out to have been fruitless. Something in some of us seems to need this word. And to agree with it.
Let us find a way to bury that instead.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.