It seemed like for a while there were news stories every week about somebody somewhat famous saying something racist or racially insensitive. For Paula Deen, the repercussions were swift and harsh. She lost endorsements, business partnerships, and fans (all of which affected her financially). Two women on Big Brother (whose comments were shown on Big Brother after Dark and eventually later in clips on the regular CBS version of the show) were, unbeknownst to them, fired by their employers for their comments. I don’t know if they’ve been voted out since then since I don’t watch the show. I won’t bother to look it up.
Then there was the incident in which Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on video, courtesy of a cell phone, ranting angrily about jumping over a fence and “fight[ing] every nigger out there, bro.” Cooper was drunk and pouting because a Black security guard would not allow him to go backstage at the Kenny Chesney concert he was attending. I guess the guard didn’t recognize Cooper:
- with his hair pulled into a ponytail instead of flowing freely from under a helmet
- his muscles prominent in a cut-off shirt rather than somehow looking smaller (maybe because on the field guys around him look wider or more muscular) in a game-time jersey and pads
- acting the fool.
The incident, of course, took place weeks before being revealed to the public (there were allegations that the person shooting the footage was trying to blackmail Cooper), but once it was out there it garnered a lot of media attention (I’m sure by a majority of people who had never heard of Riley Cooper).
Cooper was quick to make a statement to the public, apologizing for his actions and revealing embarrassment. He said his action, “isn’t the type of person I am,” and said, “This is not the type of person I want to be portrayed as.” The Eagles fined him and mandated that he receive sensitivity training. The NFL did not punish him because the team had. Cooper was back at practice with the Eagles less than a week after the incident was made public. He’s played in each preseason game thus far and is expected to start at wide receiver during the season.
Although some people feel the punishment was not enough (see, for instance, this article/blog via the Chicago Tribune), I’m glad this did not result in another instance of a business taking the ax to someone for saying something racist. We do enough of that. The business solution is typically (at least when an incident has been made public and received a lot of media attention) to express outrage, cut out a perceived cancer, wash their hands, and move on. Businesses can do this. They exist to make money. If they fear a relationship with someone will cost them one red cent, they will sever their ties with the individual.
While people have freedom of speech in this country, they are not free to speak their mind without fear of retribution from the private sector. You can say what you want without being put in jail (of course there are problems when you’ve said something slanderous, but that must be proven and if you’re guilty, you’ll suffer financially), but I can fire you, end our partnership, stop doing business with you, suspend you from school, write a blog telling people how bad of a person I think you are, et cetera, if I am in the position to do so. Okay, enough about that.
Unless you’re extremely important to a business, you’re considered expendable. I bet there are people at the ready during a PR crises that have spreadsheets calculating just how much severing ties with people being shamed in the media for some alleged wrong or another will cost versus the cost of keeping them around. It should be said that if the Eagles did something like this, they determined that the costs outweighed the benefits of waiving/cutting Cooper (in football speak that’s basically waving someone bye bye and leaving it up to another team to sign or ignore the player). You see, not long before Cooper’s rant was made public, the Eagles top receiver from a year ago had been lost for the season due to injury. They would lose another one, to the same injury, around the time of Cooper’s return to the team. So the Eagles really needed Cooper around. Now, that’s not to say they wouldn’t have made the same move even if Jeremy Maclin were healthy. Cooper’s a veteran on the team. Then, again, there are no allegiances from the coaching staff as most—including the head coach—are new to the team. However, Cooper has spent time learning the playbook and bringing in a new guy who hadn’t probably didn’t seem appealing. The cost of getting a new guy up to speed on the playbook minus the…
Still I’m going to give the team, if not the benefit of the doubt, a nod to handling the situation appropriately, provided the agency or individual the team sent Cooper to is extremely reputable, skilled, and serious about sensitivity training. That’s because the most important thing is providing resources for Cooper to educate him and help him sort through his issues. And he does have issues dealing with race. The word choice he used, set free by that tonic-of-truth alcohol, did not come from nowhere. While Cooper might say and actually believe that the angry man captured on video does not represent who he really is, the fact is that the angry man captured on video does represent part of who he really is.
Maybe the guy just hates Black people. Or, more likely, Cooper has some racist thoughts. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad person. The U.S. has a racist history and institutions continue to perpetrate racism. Is it then difficult to believe and accept that otherwise kind, hardworking, decent people have racist thoughts? For many people it seems that’s just too much truth to swallow, but it shouldn’t be. We all have things to work on, ways to improve, thoughts we didn’t wish we had. We are human.
Perhaps Cooper has built up resentment from being passed over over the years by coaches and scouts who did not see his skills because he’s a White guy playing a position numerically dominated (at least in the upper echelons of college football and the NFL) by Black guys. It happens more than people admit because they don’t even see their bias. It occurred for years to Black men who wanted to be quarterbacks or were quarterbacks until they got to college or the pros. At some point it became true for White guys who play corner, running back (now distinguished by many from fullback aka blocking back—when exactly did that happen? Fullbacks used to carry the football frequently.) It happens daily as young people decide to pursue or give up particular sports, other activities, or academic pursuits because stereotypes in society say they are not supposed to be good at certain things and can only be good at others.
Conversely, maybe Cooper’s resentful because scouts and coaches have bent over backwards for him as a White guy playing wide receiver and he doesn’t believe he’s deserved the praise or favors. It’s possible. It happens in the world outside of football and likely inside it too, and in other sports. Either misguided employers are eager to elevate someone “different” to a position because they want to appear progressive or they do it because they really want to get behind that person. The employer who hires or promotes somebody not ready for the position because he/she thinks it’s the “right thing” to do. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as hiring and promoting due to nepotism, but I digress. Consider, also, the “Great White Hope” boxers in the past who were pushed and promoted because their backers really, really wanted them to be champions amidst a near-exclusive number of non-White champs. (I bet that still holds true, particularly for heavyweights, in a slightly tweaked way. You see, the Klitschko brothers are not American, so there are probably some diehard boxing fans—a dying breed as it were—who secretly want a real-life Rocky Balboa (White and American born and bred) to become heavyweight champ.)
Maybe Cooper’s gotten ribbing or outright bullying by people (fans, teammates) for being the White guy wide receiver. Maybe it’s made him mad and he’s never addressed it. Any of the above could be true, none could be true. But whatever the reason, Cooper’s got anger towards Black people, anger with which he hadn’t before (or still hasn’t depending upon the quality of his counseling) dealt.
We should be talking about these things out in the open. Let’s talk about resentment. Maybe we can arrive at a truth. Maybe if we allowed people to talk about their frustrations, their biases, their misperceptions, we can educate everyone about the realities of racism. It’s not gone, folks. We can’t keep:
- sweeping it under the rug;
- or blaming it on “bad people” that are nothing like ourselves;
- or blaming it on “stupid people” that make us supposedly ashamed of our race;
- or sprinting to make excuses by blaming alcohol, the “liberal” media, and victims of racism for daring to lift up the carpet.
Why can’t we be adults about this? We say, “the N word” rather than the actual word as if that somehow takes away the history of oppression, outright hatred, discrimination, and lynching of Black people referred to as niggers by the people committing the acts outright and those standing by watching it happen and benefiting from the privilege of having non-Brown skin. It doesn’t.
We claim we’ve taken the sting from the word by replacing –er with –a and turning a word that’s been used as an equivalent to stupid, inferior, shiftless, lazy, degenerate, criminal, immoral, and less-than-human, into a word that means brother, friend, loved one. Right.
Ask a regular guy in Brooklyn if he hears a difference from the way he says nigger and the way he says nigga. He won’t unless he’s taken special diction classes to modify his regular accent. Where do you think the word nigga came from anyway? Do you really think someone actually took the time to decide he was going to re-claim the word nigger to make it something uplifting and the best way to do that was to invent a new version spelled with an a? Maybe a group of people got together and said, “We gotta do something about nigger. We hear it too much. We got to turn it into a positive. Let’s spell it n-i-g-g-a and make it a term of endearment.” Some rappers would have you believe that. Do you know that niggah was used, too, in writing—mainly to mimic the accent of people whose speech patterns regularly substitute the –er sound for the –ah sound? Eventually the h was dropped from the way the word is typically spelled now, but it doesn’t change the facts: nigga was nigger because of speech patterns; n-i-g-g-a was “invented” when rappers and hip hop musicians wrote out their lyrics. Sure they meant nigger—sometimes in an affectionate way, sometimes in just a familiar way to refer to people in their communities whether friends or just other Black people, and sometimes in the same old way (particularly to refer to enemies or people they looked down upon). When the same people who claim nigga is a term of affection use it to say, “Those niggas are messed up. They don’t deserve jack,” you think they’re using it lovingly?
Maybe if we actually got into regular, civil dialogue when these incidents occur (whether or not they make their way into 24-7 news coverage)–and they occur daily—we’d eventually weed out the most dangerous form of racism, institutional racism. The most perverse, sustaining form of racism that:
- causes banks to refuse loans in areas in which the majority of people are not White;
- benefits White folks who have property handed down over generations (dating back to Jim Crow and in many cases far beyond, when most non-Whites who were finally legally allowed to have property saw their property taken from them, were effectively excluded from ownership, or could not afford to own it in the first place) that they can use to mortgage and pay for the education of their children and grandchildren and take out loans for small businesses;
- gives businesses an excuse to not have a presence in economically deprived areas, and those that are in the areas reason to charge high prices for their services because they know the people living there have limited options (or to compensate for the high property tax rates they have to pay);
- allows property tax rates in the poorest areas be much higher than those in affluent areas, while the prices of homes in these lower-income areas are undervalued in the real estate market;
- allows the so-called War on Drugs to really be a) an excuse to incarcerate non-White perpetrators at far higher rates for longer sentences than White perpetrators of the same crimes, and b) an excuse to blame non-Whites for the violence in their communities rather than an actual reduction in the amount of drugs and guns in these areas;
- calls Asians “model minorities” a) without the historical context of the 1965 immigration act, which finally removed racial barriers to immigration (but also added restrictive quotas to immigration from Latin America where they didn’t originally exist) and focused more on skills, attracting skilled workers (from already affluent backgrounds and/or with the educational or professional skills to earn high wages in the U.S.) from Asia into the country in increasingly larger numbers; and b) by ignoring the population of Asian refugees (from places such as Vietnam and Laos), who came to the U.S. to flee violence and are often mired in poverty;
- popularizes images of American Indians as caricatures, mascots, and characters from westerns invisible in “modern” society, rather than living, breathing people;
- makes it acceptable to refer to economically disadvantaged Whites as “trash” and dismiss their needs while making the excuse that they must have done something wrong to be in their position because they’re White and should be succeeding.
Maybe if we did this we could focus on the problems we have in common and work together to find solutions for them, instead of pointing the finger at individuals and particular races. Why not give it a try?