“I’m not a racist. To judge me by that one word is wrong. In no way shape or form is it ever acceptable for me to use that word, even if it’s friend to friend on a voicemail.” —Suspended NFL offensive lineman Richie Incognito
A few days ago we finally heard from Incognito, the man who’s become America’s latest embodiment of bullying, bigotry and general stupidity. His defense of the indefensibly racist voicemail he left his teammate was mostly predictable after what we heard from many of his teammates last week: I’m a good guy. What I said was a joke taken out of context. It’s wrong to judge me for having used that word once in a private phone call. It was mostly pedestrian stuff, until Incognito gave us a window into how, at least in his mind, his Black teammates feel about the use of racial slurs in mixed spaces. “[The N-word] is thrown around a lot,” by Black teammates, even by Jonathan Martin, the player for whom he left the notorious “half-n*igger” voicemail.
Richie Incognito claims to have thought that calling his teammate—the man he called his brother—a n*gger, was OK because the Black men he was closest to had never checked him on it. I’m inclined to believe Incognito there, which is what makes the whole episode more foul. This says more about certain Black men—and certain Black men of a particular age—than it ever will about the Richie Incognitos of the world.
NFL locker rooms are arguably the safest space for Black hypermasculinity to exist in a professional context in America. Black men who exhibit violent tendencies don’t exactly win employee of the year. In most spaces, the work force in particular, Black men don’t get rewarded for aggressive behavior—they get punished. But pro football is choreographed violence and extreme aggression is a valuable trait to have. The men who make their living playing the game are mostly Black. If there’s a workplace where it would be acceptable for a Black man to get up in a White man’s face for using the wrong word, a place where that brother wouldn’t lose his job, that place is the National Football League. Yet, that didn’t happen.
I think I might know why.
In middle school, a history teacher threw a group of us out her room for acting a fool during a lesson on the Civil Rights Movement. After class, we got a lecture I never forgot. “If young Black people don’t take our own history seriously, it won’t be long before Martin Luther King appears as White in the history books,” she said. The suggestion seemed ridiculous, but I eventually got her point: today’s willful disregard of your own history is tomorrow’s future abdication of the responsibility to defend yourself and own from ridicule. That abdication throws open the doors to the whitewashing of our heroes and the sanitizing of some of the most vile chapters in our history (see: efforts in Texas to remove slavery from public school curricula.)
Each slight, with the passage of time, becomes more tolerable. This is how generations of Black men—mine included—went from defenders of our culture to passive observers of open racism, even defenders and befrienders of racists. This is how Richie Incognito came to believe what he said was OK as long as it was said to a “friend.” This is where we, as brothers, failed to enforce a line our grandparents drew, instead inviting people to step on and over it.
You might argue this is more about NFL culture than a generational shift in sensitivity to racism. I’ll disagree, and refer you to Shannon Sharpe’s emotional rant during a CBS pregame show. He’s in the NFL Hall of Fame. He owns Super Bowl rings. He knows all about the league’s locker room norms. In regards to his football progeny giving Incognito a pass, he says: “This tells me everything I need to know about the Miami Dolphins locker room, how we got here and why we got here. Just ask your parents, ask your grandparents. The mountain that they climbed so a Black person in America could have respect, could have dignity, and you allow this in an open locker room to take place is just unacceptable.”
Sharpe is 45—not old enough to have marched with King, but certainly old enough to have learned about the struggle directly from the OGs. It’s also old enough to have come of age in a world that didn’t yet bother with the fallacy of post-racialism. Richie Incognito, on the other hand, is 15 years his junior, and Jonathan Martin is only 24. They’re Millennials, a generation far more likely to accept the promise, for what it’s worth, of said fallacy. This episode, at least in part, is a reminder of the danger to rush into that acceptance. It demands that those of us old enough to do so make a quick habit of drawing lines with their “friends” on racist behavior. It insists that likewise, we check one another on accepting (and perpetuating) insults and that we equip our sons with the instinct to distinguish slights from friendly smack-talk. If we don’t, we risk accepting “friendship” in exchange for a collective dignity that erodes with the passage of time.
Keith Reed is a senior editor for ESPN The Magazine. Tweet him: @K_dot_re