A word you shouldn’t use in any sentence


The Los Angeles Clippers' Matt Barnes was fine $25,000 by the NBA for using a racial slur in a tweet. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)
Mike Wise
Columnist November 21, 2013

It’s been a soul-crushing, if illuminating, few weeks for this Caucasian social-justice minister.

First, shortly after Jonathan Martin walked away from his NFL career with the Miami Dolphins, we learned that Martin’s white teammate Richie Incognito repeatedly used the N-word to ridicule him — and that some black teammates actually gave Incognito license to use the word, one former teammate referring to him as an “honorary brother.”

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Then Matt Barnes, after being ejected from an NBA game, used the word in a tweet, for which he was fined $25,000 — and later defended by Michael Wilbon, Charles Barkley and others, whose message was essentially, “Leave the young brother alone.”

All this time I had it in my leftist-engineer head that this word was the most vile, disgusting, loaded word in the history of the English language, and now it’s an accepted synonym for “man” or “dude” or “partner?” More jarring, Wilbon said he used it “all day, every day, all my life,” specifying on “Pardon the Interruption,” “I have a problem with white people framing the discussion for the use of the N-word.”

Okay.

The Post Sports Live crew discusses the suspension of Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito and why his racist and threatening text messages to teammate Jonathan Martin are not typical NFL hazing. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

And I have a problem with anyone of any ethnicity telling me that my values and beliefs about eradicating slurs from public and private conversation are less important than having agency over them for personal use — no matter who it hurts, including millions of African Americans who want the word abolished and should have just as much say.

Actually, it’s deeper than that. When you think you’re fighting for a less hostile, less confusing and more mutually respectful country for our children to live in and then you find out your idea of a shared purpose wasn’t shared by people you like and respect, a real hopelessness sets in.

The N-word is filth; it’s disrespectful, confusing and uplifts no one. I know of no other minority in the world co-opting a dehumanizing, racial slur used by its oppressor.

Yet I’m told, “You don’t get it; you’re white.”

No. That doesn’t work for me. I deserve a seat at this table. This is about the world my 3-year-old is going to live in.

Spending my formative years in a rural part of Hawaii, where welfare and food stamps were how many families in Ewa Beach got by, I grew up as one of a few “haole” kids among an ethnic stew of poor- to middle-class Filipino, Samoan, Tongan, Hawaiian and Japanese kids. I would not wish some of the early prejudice and violence I experienced on any prepubescent teen. But in hindsight, I now feel being a minority, even for a few years, should be a prerequisite for every person of a dominant culture; it makes you see and feel what people on the other side see and feel.

It’s where I gained a real affinity and appreciation for diversity, for experiencing the world outside my own ethnic prism. I want to continue that for my son, to impart the one-world values my father imparted on me. I don’t want him to experience the word in any form.

When I am told, “This isn’t about you,” I feel like I’m being judged by the color of my skin and not the content of my character.

I understand many black people in this country, including several close friends, feel territorial in having a license to use the word as they see fit. For them, that means diluting its power and origin, the fact that the word was often the last thing a black man heard before he was lynched. I understand most of them mean no malice and actually use it as a term of affection. I’ve even heard it in locker rooms often the past 25 years covering sports.

I still don’t get why it’s okay — on any level.

When I asked Wilbon to explain his position to me over the phone this past weekend, he said, “Just know it’s so complex. It’s like Aloha: It can mean 1,000 different things. My father called me that every day of my life. Every day. To my face. ‘Come here, my little [N-word].’ ”

Having known Wilbon for 20-plus years and worked with him at The Post for almost 10 years, hearing the word over the phone in such a routine way blew me away. I asked him how that felt, to be called that as a little kid. “I like the word,” he said.

He added that Bill Rhoden, my former colleague at the New York Times, called many of the country’s prominent black sports journalists about 20 years ago to ask them to stop using the word in hopes they could help kill it. “I tried it for about a week,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. The analogy would be a smoker trying to give up smoking cold turkey. I haven’t decided whether I’ll call [my son] that. But you know what? I think I will.”

But Wilbon also acknowledged, “Now there’s a whole new generation of white people using it. I can see how that can be dangerous.”

I think it’s more than dangerous; I think the casual, callous acceptance of the word by any racial group is downright frightening.

Worse, it leads ill-intentioned whites to care even less about people who don’t look like them. When that word is deemed acceptable in any situation, here’s who gets empowered: those who mock the NFL rule guaranteeing a minority candidate at least be interviewed before a head coaching job is filled, the ones who think affirmative action was always a ruse just to get unqualified minorities jobs, the warped souls who still believe to their core that black activists and white guilt elected President Obama.

When the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition people called late last Friday, inviting me at the last minute to be on a panel encompassing everything from the Washington football team’s name to the image of the African American athlete portrayed by the media, I brought up the N-word issue in front of an almost all-black audience.

Bob Butler, a reporter for KCBS radio in San Francisco and the current president of the National Association of Black Journalists, essentially said that ship has sailed. After the panel, he told me of the frustration of having his teenage son continue using the word on his Facebook account and how that looks for the president of NABJ.

“I coach kids about 16, and every time they come off the court, that’s what they call each other it seems,” said Curtis Symonds, the panel’s moderator and a former BET executive whom I’ve known for a while. “It’s so steeped in the culture, you can’t even know.”

When Suzan Shown Harjo, the Muscogee-Cheyenne woman fighting the name of Daniel Snyder’s NFL team in court for the past 20 years, asked the audience at the end to “please stop using the R-word,” I couldn’t help but feel hollow inside. Really, how in the hell will a room of socially conscious, highly educated African Americans extricate an NFL team name from their vocabulary when Sir Charles, Jay-Z and others in the entertainment industry are telling them the worst thing you can call a black person is all good in the ’hood?

Black people rightly ask white people to examine our prejudices, racism and bigotry, take a hard look at things inside us and around us that we subconsciously might not even recognize. It’s an ongoing, everyday effort to meet that challenge, but I’ve gladly accepted it for my son’s future and my own betterment.

Now I’m asking all my brothers and sisters of every complexion to do something: Take this confusion off the table.

We still live in a very segregated society. Keeping this word around divides us more. Don’t write my kid off. Don’t make it harder on him just because you have special admission to a club with a sign above it that reads, “N-words Only.”

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read Sports
Stats, scores and schedules