The third way on the N-word

I suppose I’m something of a consumer of the news media. I read several columnists, dozens of blogs (I’ll read yours if you ask me too), save articles that I see on Twitter, and listen to a lot of sports talk radio. I used to study journalism and I have a special love for newspapers.

If there’s one thing though that the America media industrial complex teaches us is the obsession we have with binary arguments. The red state, blue state debate is probably the best example of it. In fact, the media plays it up so much, it may have paralyzed the country into its current stasis.

The alternative or a third way is rarely even discussed. There are dominant scripts that dictate our lives, and there is almost no discussion whatsoever of a script that might fit into a different framework. I’ll be posting about this more in the current weeks, but I want to start today with an anecdote from sports media.

Right on the heels of the Richie Incognito / Jonathan Martin problem (another post that I try to provide an alternative to the dominant mainstream arguments), comes another one that is equally racially charged. This time it’s in the NBA.

You can watch this video to see it unfold.

After blocking Blake Griffin’s shot and getting tangled up with him, Serge Ibaka carelessly relinquishes himself from Griffin. It looks a little bit disrespectful. Skirmishes like that happen a lot in basketball. Matt Barnes’ reaction on the other hand, violently shoving Ibaka don’t occur as often. The balled up fist that Ibaka threatens Barnes’ with? Also, not common. Both Barnes and Ibaka were ejected from the game. Shortly after, Barnes Tweeted this (saved only in this retweet):

The violence aside, which I think is another debate (but ignored in our violent culture, generally), is Barnes’ casual use of the N-word. It’s easy to get caught up in the binary. There are black people on both sides of the “N-word” issue (and white people along with them). Barnes quickly apologized for his remark, but Charles Barkley (another loud mouth) articulated this week that he thinks it’s OK, that Barnes didn’t need to apologize, and that he uses it among friends too. There is reason to apologize and reason not to.

It’s good for the U.S. to talk about its signature sin, racism. And anything that can bring the conversation up can be used for good. Obviously the N-word invokes a lot of historic oppression to some people and it is not to be toyed with. But it also can be used to empower people who have felt that same oppression. I think it’s a good conversation—and to be honest, it’s OK to leave it at that. A dialogue is better than an argument. But there are good reasons on both sides of the issue, but I’m more interested in discussing racism in the U.S., not just a word. I don’t want to be forced into a category, into a side of the debate, and I think that’s OK.

Granted, as an Arab American, I also choose not to weigh in on the issue because I’m not sure I’m affected by it as much as other people are. I have been called the N-word before (both as an offensive and a friendly word), and of course the less common “sand nigger” I’ve heard as well. Obviously, the term used in a derogatory sense is completely wrong and should never be tolerated (not unlike the Washington pro football team’s nickname too)

Racism affects all of us even if we are a privileged position, however. I think Jesus calls us to a different script altogether. In fact, in his own ministry, he often a different answer than the “yes/no” binary for which the religious and political leaders were looking.

More clearly, Paul does it in Romans 12 when he tells the Romans not to conform to the patterns of this world but be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Of course, “both sides” of the camp can proof text to prove their point, but it might just mean we need to think about another script altogether.

My suggestion is to talk about our racialized society and offer an alterative that is both anti-racism and offers hope for a New Humanity. I’m not sure weighing in on the latest debate helps us too much. But it does sell newspapers.

7 Replies to “The third way on the N-word

  1. I highly recommend Randall Kennedy’s book on the rich history of the N word in the U.S. , especially legally. Words have history. That’s how they carry meaning and have their impact.

      1. I have a copy I can let you borrow. Randall’s main purpose in the book was to make a case for when it is/ isn’t appropriate to take legal action on someone who uses the word. But before he did that, he talks about origins of European people using the word to describe people in the Niger river valley, to using it to describe someone who was for sale, to (like you said), someone of color redeeming it as a term of endearment towards their fellow oppressed, to people of color using it as a slur to describe undesirable characteristics in a person or culture that inhibit advancement, and more. He had lots and lots of references in U.S. history. This word has been tossed around for some time in many different ways.

  2. “Sand n-word” is better because it is offensively politically correct. As would be “prairie n-word” & “wn-word”

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