This is an open letter response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ November 23rd op-ed in the NY Times, “In
Defense of a Loaded Word.”
Almost twenty years ago I made a choice not to use the word n****. However I do not begrudge those who do. I don’t want to live in a world where the words we use in our private relationships are regulated. I cherish my freedom just as much as anyone. But let’s not pretend that we, as black people, can set up rules of the road for the use of n****. Why, because not all of us will follow them. And if we don’t follow them, we can’t turn around and be mad at white people who are taking the license one or many of us have given them.
The Richie Incognito text message evidence that has been made public comes across as violent and offensive without knowing the context. Once we fully learn the context we will have a better understanding. In the meantime let’s examine what we do know.
Several players in the Dolphin locker room have called him an honorary black person. Perhaps for those particular Black people, being an honorary Black person creates the “right relationship” for them to allow him to use n**** frequently. Supposedly Incognito says, “Mike Pouncey n****” at about the: 05 mark in this video. Mike Pouncey is one of his closest friends on the team. He hugs Pouncey later in the video. A recent article indicates that Pouncey and Incognito have spent time together since the recent bullying scandal took place. The video doesn’t suggest Incognito was being offensive or violent. His relationship with Pouncey suggests that he’s been given a pass on some level thus making it acceptable to Pouncey and perhaps those who consider him honorary.
There is another report where Warren Sapp says Incognito called him n**** during a game. Based on this audio, Sapp indicates that being call n**** is a term of endearment where he’s from and the during a football game it doesn’t offend him even coming from a white guy. He went on to say that if he came to the locker room after the game and called him that, it would be a different conversation. My conclusion is that anything goes during the game thus creating a context in which a white person can use n**** and it’s acceptable to Sapp.
A close friend of mine attended Watch the Throne in LA. He shared that the audience was mostly white and they recited the lyrics to Jay-Z’s songs with passion and no hesitation. I don’t hear musical artist complaining or shutting down their concerts because white people are singing their lyrics with n**** n**** n**** all up in the song. Are we saying it’s acceptable as long as we’re making money on it?
These examples point to relationships and contexts where white people using n**** has been deemed acceptable. A Black person may be close enough in relationship with a white person or group of white people where it’s acceptable to say it.
We know that Black people use n**** in offensive and violent ways every day. We sometimes use it to distinguish Black people and n*****. If Incognito is “honorary” to the extent that he is using n**** in the presence of his black friends, it’s likely that he uses it in every way we as black people use it. Sometimes endearing, sometimes negatively, sometimes to be provocative. If the black people around him have given him that pass, how is he wrong? I’m curious to know if Incognito calling Jonathan n**** will be a significant offense once the evidence in the bullying case is made public. I’m guessing it won’t be. But if Martin has a problem with it, it’s absolutely wrong, if his other teammates are ok with it, no one outside of those relationships can say otherwise.
It’s clear that Black people as a whole do not subscribe to your assertion that: “Nigger” is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will always be places they can never go. In fact, white people can go there, they do it on a regular basis, and will continue. If players in the Dolphin locker room are okay with Incognito using the word, he’s going to use it. If we continue to commercialize the word and put it in our songs, white people will buy it, go to your concert, and sing it. When Ja Rule writes the remix to “I’m Real” for J. Lo and she sings the lyrics, Ja Rule is at partly responsible for the backlash because he led her to believe it was acceptable. She’s Jenny from the Block, right?
So yes, context matters. I absolutely agree with you. The issue is that context is not universal. The conversation your dad would have with you addressing him as Billy is far different than the conversation two people might have regarding n****. Your relationship to your dad is clear. The relationship between two people or groups of people varies, thus making it far less clear what’s acceptable language.
I’d like to offer one more comment and pose a couple of questions. The notion of n**** being a place that white people can never go, if it were true, is petty of us. We’re saying, “You can’t call me a word you called us historically to demean us but we can call ourselves that.” Really??? Is that what we’re on? Please tell me how that’s contributing to our growth as a community? It’s beyond time for us to move on.
My questions are meant to challenge us to think about this issue in a different way. I want us to ponder the value in the word n****. 1) What if we as a collective people decided we were not going to use the word? What if we truly unified around this? Could that take away the power the word has over us? 2) If there was a roll call and we had to choose between the door marked black and the door marked N****, what door would you choose? What if the choices were Professional and N****? What about Christian/Muslim and N**** or Hard working and N****? Of course the hard working, black, professional, Muslim brotha can be my n**** but is it necessary to add that?
Vaughn Bryant is a social entrepreneur with over 15 year of experience in both the public and private sectors. Bryant has a proven track record of creating successful programs that meet market demand. He is recognized by many colleagues as an innovator and thought leader in education and social policy. Bryant received a master’s degree from Northwestern University and his undergraduate degree from Stanford University. He is a former fourth-round draft choice of the Detroit Lions, a three-year starter, and a two time All-Pac-10 selection at Stanford. You can follow him on Twitter @VaughnDerrick.