Andrew Harrison, right, wasn’t referencing race when he used the n-word against Frank Kaminsky, left. (Brian Spurlock/USA Today)

The “racial slur” accusations and “double standard” charges hurled by the media and from angry corners of Twitter after Andrew Harrison’s hot-mic moment last weekend are evidence of just how perverted our nation’s race conversation has become. The University of Kentucky sophomore, on the heels of his basketball team’s first and only loss of the season, was caught muttering “F— that nigga” under his breath when a teammate was asked about opponent Frank Kaminsky during a post-game news conference.

Harrison blundered when he dropped the f-word in a formal setting and on an open microphone. It was a 20-year-old’s stupid mistake, and his apology should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t. Headlines indicted Harrison (a black guy) for using “a racial slur” against Kaminsky (a white guy). Then came whining from across the Internet that Harrison was the beneficiary of a double standard, because his use of the word didn’t result in his expulsion or his being branded a racist. The same day, these critics noted, news broke that a University of South Carolina student was suspended after a photo of her writing the plural of the n-word on a white board went viral.

To make such claims is to be willfully obtuse. After years of such trite debates, it should go without saying: Context matters. White people invented the word to disparage black folks. Using it to blame black people for ruining some formerly lily-white institution is an American pastime. It’s in that context that the University of South Carolina student scrawled the plural of the n-word as the first in a list of things ruining the school’s wi-fi (illogical, but I guess she’s still learning, or something). It’s in that context that students at Bucknell University were expelled for a radio broadcast that included the n-word, along with racist comments like “black people should be dead” and “lynch ’em.” And surely, that was the context for members of University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, who were recorded singing that racist little ditty about “hanging them from a tree.” Contrary to some ridiculous claims, those SAE boys didn’t learn that context from any rapper.

In those types of circumstances, the n-word is used to exclude, demonize and terrorize a group of people. It’s dishonest to try to lump in Andrew Harrison with that form of systemic racism. Even though this rationale upsets some, including some black people who are vehemently against the use of the word under any circumstance, it’s nonetheless true. Those critics argue against reclaiming or redefining the n-word slur, using the derivative Harrison used. But it is clear that among those who do use that derivative, particularly millennials, the connotation is not the same. In that context, it’s used not as a racial slur, but as a comparatively benign and generic reference to another individual.

If someone finds it a burden that white people cannot use “the n-word” without inciting anger, they operate from within a bubble filled with entitlement, privilege and delusion about what real racial burdens in America look like. It’s exhausting to have to repeatedly explain something that ought to be so easy to understand. The fact that we continue to have this debate, over whether black people should be able to repurpose a slur that is not their own invention, speaks to whose interests still dominate the race narrative. More importantly, it speaks to how, when it comes to tackling race and racism, we collectively continue to focus on the superficial rather than the substantive. What should be more troubling: Andrew Harrison calling a white guy the n-word derivative after losing a basketball game, or the racist systems that lead to disproportionate poverty and criminalization of black men and women in our country? Just because Harrison’s outburst is an easier topic to dissect doesn’t make it more demanding of our focus. We are quick to jump on racist words, but remain wilfully blind to racist systems.

Call Harrison unsportsmanlike. Say he lacks civility. Point out that he needs to learn how to be a better loser. Let’s all agree that he should learn how to think before he speaks. But to focus on whether Harrison’s words point to hypocrisy is a fool’s errand. No matter if you believe he has a right to say it, the fact remains that the n-word – in any derivation – will always have more force when it flies out of the mouth of a member of the race who invented it.

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