Richie Incognito's Accidental Racism: An Apologia

Richie Incognito did not choose to employ the most incendiary slur in the American lexicon, so much as he was caught.
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Former NFL player Nathan Jackson makes a full-throated defense of Richie Incognito over at New York. It's worth focusing on Jackson's notion that Richie Incognito was well within his rights to call a black man a half-nigger:

Through the TV screen, Richie Incognito looks like the big jerk. But we don’t understand the context, intent, or perception of the joking that goes on in that locker room, or whether it was perceived as joking in the first place. The voice-mail in question sure sounds like a joke, albeit a bad one: It allegedly involves Incognito using the N-word and offering to poop in the dude’s mouth.

Of course, no one but ESPN’s Adam Schefter takes the mouth-defecation threats seriously. I mean, imagine the logistics there. But that Incognito called Martin a half-N-word is worth discussing. Out in society, the word nigger still excites and appalls, and a white man who is unlucky enough to utter it, even in jest, is forever labeled a racist. But inside an NFL locker room, the meaning of the word has washed out. There are white men who are so close to their black brothers that their lexicon is identical, and they communicate with the same phrases, jokes, and nicknames.

Some in the media were quick to label Incognito a racist, but some of his black teammates defended him. Every NFL locker room is full of proud black men who have a keen eye for the intentions of their white peers. If Richie Incognito said the N-word in a malicious way, those teammates would have taken care of the problem.

The thinking here is unfortunate. If I am found on camera inveighing against  "hook-nosed Jews," to call myself "unlucky" would be deflection and self-serving understatement. The word "unlucky" presumes that virtually all adult white men can be found, at some point, in full-on Michael Richards-mode and those of us who would shame them for it are the real culprits.

This is accidental racism, which is to say white innocence, at its finest. Richie Incognito did not choose to employ the most incendiary slur in the American lexicon, so much as he was caught by some peeping Tom (who happened to be the victim.) Riley Cooper didn't physically threaten a black security guard with a phrase that has accompanied some of the worst acts of terrorism in our country's history; some rude voyeur videoed Cooper relieving himself in public. 

It's that same white innocence that allows for Jackson's claim of brotherhood and his invocation of "proud black men." We have heard a lot about the peculiar context of the locker-room. I think we should remember the peculiar context in which the locker-room exists. The locker-room is a workplace controlled--almost entirely--by white people. In this sense we are all in locker-rooms, workplaces with different rules, but with white control remaining constant. I see no reason why the NFL should be immune to the basic laws of American gravity. On the contrary, players, like all workers, have interests--among them, securing food for their families and loved ones. Players, not unlike workers, do this by subverting individual interests in favor of the interests of their employers. 

I highly doubt that the invocation of "nigger" has "washed out" of NFL locker-rooms. More likely, it is that players simply can't afford to be bothered fighting over it. This is not so different than any other work-place. White people relying on black people to be their conscience will very often be disappointed. We come to work to put dinner on the table. Charging me with taking my work-time to list the reasons why calling me a "half-nigger" might not be a very good idea is the magic that transforms your ignorance into my burden.

The limits of using work-place friendships to analyze something that happened outside of the workplace, are evident in Jackson's notion that "nigger" is the ultimate statement of fraternity. White people who actually spend time around black people--not black individuals whom they know from work, but black people with their families, in their communities, with their parents--will quickly notice that using "nigger" actually isn't a barometer of closeness. I'm black and I don't call even some of my best friends nigger. They, unlike me, are offended by it. Black humans, like most humans, are different from each other. But to grasp this, you must have to have relationships with black humans that go beyond your job. 

That is why black players defending Incognito is irrelevant. Those players are free to invite Richie Incognito to call their voicemails and threaten their lives, and threaten their mothers, and threaten to shit in their mouths, and call them half-niggers, and when it all becomes public hold a press conference in which they laud Incognito as the second coming of Lincoln.

But Martin doesn't have to live by their standards. Arguing that he should because, like, these other black dudes I work with it said it was fine, is myopia.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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