When Black and White Turn Gray

November 25, 2013

I grew up with parents who forbade not only profanity but also any language that could remotely be considered coarse. An untruth was not a lie, it was a fib. If you uttered the word butt, you had better be talking about a cigarette—one that you had seen, not smoked—otherwise you were to use rear or seat. The closest I came to pushing the envelope was the occasional damn, but it was muttered under my breath and after checking over my shoulder. It went without saying that the n-word would be such a scandalous violation that I never even thought about using it, inside or outside our home.

Even though other expletives have crossed my lips since then (sorry, Mom and Dad), the n-word remains a personal taboo. I've never addressed anyone that way or dropped it in casual conversation—with all of its ugly historical baggage, the term is way too heavy for me to lift, much less throw around. Yet comedians like Richard Pryor and Chris Rock have used it in ways that make me laugh, and I've been entertained by musical artists who spit it out as easily as their names. Even profanity can be poetry when it is used with skill.

There is no easy logic to explain my standards for the n-word. I choose not to say it, and I'm usually not offended when other black people do. Yet I was disgusted when I heard Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito, who is white, use the slur in a voice mail to his black teammate Jonathan Martin. My reaction to the n-word is affected by context, intent, the race of the person using it and even my mood. That might seem inconsistent, but it's partly the result of a culture that has taken a word that used to be about black and white and made it gray.

Clippers forward Matt Barnes, who is biracial, demonstrated how mainstream the n-word has become last week, when he tweeted, "I'm DONE standing up for these n---as!" referring to his teammates. As Barnes told reporters on Friday, "I think if you put an -er at the end, that makes people cringe, but if there's an -a at the end, that's like people saying bro. That's just how we address people now. That's how we address our friends.... If you put the -er on it, it's offensive, and if you have an -a on it, it's more slang."

I have been in enough locker rooms to know that many athletes, black and white, agree with that line of thinking. But no matter how Barnes and others pronounce it, they are still using a word whose sole purpose was to demean and degrade a whole race of people. That can't just be swept away by saying, "Hey, it's slang now." Maybe it's because I'm north of 50 and part of a generation that had that word hurled at us in hatred far more often than we tossed it around in fun, or maybe it's because of my parents' G-rated vocabulary, but I can't accept that kind of splitting of hairs.

There's danger in trivializing the n-word. It's still verbal nitroglycerin—highly volatile, a threat to do great damage if handled carelessly. That's why I don't want the term anywhere near someone like Incognito, who apparently doesn't appreciate the range of reactions it could trigger. He could have used it 99 times in the Miami locker room without incident and still had no guarantee that the 100th utterance wouldn't hit someone like a punch in the gut.

It would be naive to think that the n-word will ever be eliminated from our vocabulary; we can't take it out of circulation the way a team retires a number. But mainstreaming the word has made all of us less sure of what to do with it, how to react to it. Who can say it and when? In or out of the locker room? I may not be offended when Barnes tweets it out, but he—and we—should understand the implications: that each use of the n-word desensitizes the world to the harm it can cause, that each use gives Incognito and others greater license to throw it around.

One of the things I developed from being forbidden to use profanity as a kid was the ability to find other words, better words, to express myself. We can do that, all of us. We can find better words.

I don't use the n-word casually. With all of its ugly historical baggage, the term is way too heavy for me to lift, much less throw around.

When is it acceptable to use the n-word?

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PHOTOJOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

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