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 African-American, 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 African-Americans.
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 African-Americans. The only difference when a Matt Barnes or Ta-Nehisi Coates uses it is that the contempt is black on black.