Saying the Word the NFL Doesn’t Want to Hear
Chop-block. Roughing the kicker. Fair-catch interference. Saying “nigga.”
Should the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which works with the NFL to increase diversity, get its way, all four will carry the same penalty. If instituted, the utterance of American society’s most worrisome word on a football field will result in a 15-yard penalty. There will also be various penalties for using the word in locker rooms, cafeterias, and other NFL-sanctioned spaces. In the days since this proposal was announced, there have been thrilled responses, some thankful the NFL is taking such a hard-line stance. Others are disappointed. They see the proposed rule change as less focused on tackling racism than on simply extinguishing a single word. But the gap in the dialogue thus far has been “Why?” Why are the members of this alliance so fed up with the word? Why now, but more important, why this word at all? Why this and, perhaps, not “Redskins”? Yes, the word stems from a horrific slur with a long and oppressive history that is still used as such by some today. But does this announcement come because of the history of the word? Is it a belated reaction to the Richie Incognito and Riley Cooper incidents? Or is it something else?
Whatever the “why” is, it stinks of a panicked gesture. John Wooten, chairman of the alliance and a 77-year-old black man, almost admitted as much in a conversation on ESPN Radio’s “Mike & Mike” show on February 25. He said the idea for the new rule came after last season’s Redskins-Eagles game, in which an official allegedly directed derogatory statements at a player. Wooten said, “You’ve got to make players respect each other. And if they’re not going to do it on their own, then you’ve got to put rules into effect that does it.”
Mike Golic then asked Wooten if the penalty would actually enforce respect among players, or if players would simply cease using the word in the workplace. The conversation highlighted Wooten’s push for “self-respect,” which suggests that black players are the target of this rule, even though he never explicitly said as much. From Wooten: “You hear it in the rap music, with the ‘H’s’ and the ‘B’s’ and then ‘N’s’ and so forth. And a lot of our young people have no idea how this ugly word came about.”
At this point, with many minutes left in the show, I turned the radio off. I didn’t need to hear any more. I was taught to show my black elders respect, even in the face of dated logic. Not today. Not with this issue in 2014. Not with the same rhetoric that arises every time the word makes news. Not with an issue I would love to actually — finally — begin to have some intelligent, progressive discussions about. In a flash, Wooten and his alliance and their penalties, fines, and ejections proved we still don’t know what to do with this word. And they show how there’s still a disconnect between the decision-makers, their messages, and the target audience.
If I’m a black kid — which I once was — and I listen to Wooten, or I watch Sunday’s Outside the Lines special on the “n-word,” I sit through it, take it in respectfully, and then go on my way. I care about the opinions of my elders with regard to the word. And I truthfully understand and respect the pain that people — my people — had to endure in regard to the word. But the “nigga” speeches I’m getting today are just like the ones I heard when I was the target audience — the “Do you know your history?” audience.
Thankfully, I’m not that far removed from being a black kid. So I have a sharp memory of being talked to about this. I remember my reactions, too. And I remember forming my own independent opinions on how to proceed. When I was a black teen, I rarely said the word. It made me uncomfortable in most settings, because I grew up in the early stages of white kids getting “passes” to say “nigga.” It was an interesting time. As society seemed to be loosening its standards on the word, I wanted to use it less. In my head — and though it was 10 years ago, I can recall this internal debate as clearly as day — the idea was that my public refusal to say it might make those around me less willing to use it. Not saying the word was my 16-year-old freedom fight.
The 2000s were a perfect time to test this stance. The ultimate context: rapping along to songs. After years of casually rapping “nigga” this and “Don’t this shit make a nigga wanna … ” that, I stopped. If you were in a car with me, or we were at a party together, you saw what I was doing. Here I was, a kid surrounded by black people in the early part of my life, followed by years at a predominantly white school. I was not saying the word invented by racist whites, now owned by blacks, around white kids, all of whom were deciding how to proceed with the word. Some decided it was their opportunity to say it. Others were still deathly afraid of getting caught even thinking about it.
But then, a few years later, I stopped stopping. Because I loved music too much and it felt unnatural. I’m sure nonblack people get that. Regardless of your race, it’s not natural to censor yourself when you know a word, regardless of the word. But I didn’t start saying it again out of some shared victimized experience with my white peers. I enjoyed saying it when the opportunity arose. Perhaps I even missed saying it. It’s an amazingly rhythmic word, after all. With a few flips of the tongue, you can say it about seven times. It doesn’t feel or sound as angry as its past suggests. At times, it’s even fun to say it. A lot.
Saying “nigga” is like smoking cigarettes. There are social smokers, and there are social “nigga” sayers. Like the people who bum a smoke after a few drinks but never carry a pack — their cravings have peaks and valleys. And all the while, there are innumerable reminders that smoking cigarettes will kill them. And is disgusting. You know what happens to people who do it. You’ve seen the pictures of what happens to your lungs. You know it annoys and offends people. And you know a world rid of cigarettes would be a healthier, probably happier world.
A lifetime of this messaging has undeniably had an effect on you. It pops into your head whenever you see one or feel a craving coming on. And often, it makes you not smoke that cigarette. But then there are those other times you’ll say, “Whatever” and grab a smoke.
And when you say that “Whatever,” you remember that one of your closest black friends just got a promotion. So you send him a simple, meaningful text:
There is a song out right now called “My Nigga,” a platinum-selling single by Compton rapper YG. The edited version is titled “My Hitta.” Since the birth of the radio edit, I’ve thought that adjustment was silly; replacing “nigga” with “hitta” makes it an even more violent song. Despite that oddity, I love it. At its core, it’s a song of camaraderie. When I’ve heard it out in bars with some of my closest friends, we react as if we were being hit with a hymn. Yes, DJ Mustard’s beat is a revelation, but most of the joy comes from that phrase: “My nigga.”
I smile when I hear Michael Wilbon — the Pardon the Interruption host and a panelist on the aforementioned Outside the Lines special — talk about the positive, personal response he got to his pro-“nigga” stance. I’m happy when I hear him say “my nigga” on his own television show. I can’t help it. This is how I feel now. The phrase, with that inflection, has long been one of the great signs of approval throughout my life. When directed my way, it makes me feel something — a good something — a validated something. When Denzel Washington’s Alonzo says it to Ethan Hawke’s Jake in Training Day, I smile. But then there’s Denzel Washington as Denzel Washington, saying it during a Comic-Con panel, much to the delight of the crowd.
And I don’t know exactly how to feel about that. Context, above even the utterance of the phrase, still matters to me.
That may be because I still don’t like saying “nigga” in front of white people. I know some people who do, almost as a way of reminding white people that there is still something in this world a black person can do that whites can’t. And, to a significant degree, I understand that feeling — it stems from the need to claim ownership of something in a world where there is little left for black culture to own. That’s not my relationship with the word, and that doesn’t make me any better or worse, more intelligent or respectful than people who take that position. Our histories with the word, and perhaps with white people, may be different.
Saying it has never felt dangerous or edgy. There’s no adrenaline rush in it. I’ve used it less with purpose, and more on purpose, which could be seen as admirable or unintelligent. But I understand where it exists in my vernacular. It’s a part of it, but not an inherent part of me. Present, but not so ingrained that it’s a crutch. Or a substitute for “friend.” I use it only around those I’m familiar with and those whose relationship to the word I’m familiar with. Because of this, the circle of people with whom I use it is quite small. It falls somewhere between an inside joke and a secret handshake. A word with horrid origins has become reserved for some of my closest black friends and family.
This conversation won’t advance until people get the tools — and the environments, and the grace — to discuss it freely and openly. And discuss what’s behind the word. And discuss the actual word, not just some dashed-out thing in quotation marks. After a few days in the news, sparked by the alliance’s proposal, it’s clear we’re not there yet. We’re still stuck in that back-and-forth between “I don’t care who says it,” “No one can say it,” and “Only we can say it.” In that, there can be no real dialogue.
Banning a word doesn’t make it disappear. Even on the field, if the word becomes synonymous with a penalty, will it change a player’s connection to the word? Perhaps the penalties will make players refer to each other as “n-words” publicly and “niggas” privately? I’ve done that hundreds of times, more to mock than in seriousness. Maybe players will take the same route. Is that better? Or will “n-word” be subject to penalty also? Should it be? Why is it better? Or maybe it is better, because everyone “can say” “n-word,” whereas there’s an entire history of who “can” and “cannot” say “nigga.”
Again, it’s messy, but this is just the NFL’s legislation of this issue. So, what of the rest of us? There are no 15-yard penalties, but many of us live and work in a world where there are restrictions on saying — or writing — the word, and harsh punishments for disobeying. There’s no one answer, but what does seem clear is that the future of dealing with this word isn’t in its history. If using tales and images from the Jim Crow South hasn’t worked yet, it’s never going to work. I promise. The only real hope is that, because “nigga” has permeated culture, largely through music, some good can come of having an opinion and personal history with the word. No one can avoid it. Everyone handles it in their own way. But while the “who” and the “how” are important, it’s the “why” that matters.
The why of “nigga” exists in the same sphere as the “urban” why and the “ghetto” why and the “hood” why and the “project” why and the “ratchet” why and the “thug” why. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve spent less and less time agonizing over who is using it, and to some extent over how the person is using it. But the “why” is what matters. Why do I still say it? Why do I sometimes not say it? Why does my white neighbor at the concert saying it still bother me so? Would I be bothered if he were Puerto Rican or Dominican? And why has the degree to which I’m bothered in general decreased over time?
These are the questions that matter, because people say the word all the time, and will continue to do so. And addressing the why — not a 15-yard penalty, and not another history lesson, and not choosing a side in an endless argument — is what moves us forward.