Kyrie Irving is 100 percent right.
The N-word needs to be put to sleep.
It is a most wretched word, in all of its iterations: with “er” at the end of it, as well as “ga.” The former is, of course, the most vile curse word in human history, a grotesque bastardization of negro, the Spanish/Portuguese word for Black. It was adapted over decades by White people in America, for one purpose and one purpose alone — the degradation of the Black Africans who were sold into bondage and slavery in the United States and the Caribbean. To call a Black slave that word was to separate that person from his or her humanity, to stress that they were not subject to the rights or privileges of White people, beginning with life itself. The formal end of slavery and Reconstruction did nothing to stop the word’s use by White people; rather, the word became cemented in the American lexicon, in a way that, say, “anti-fogmatic” — what we now call “whiskey” — did not.
The latter is an attempt by some in the Black community to “take back” the word, or reduce its hurt or power, by trying to make it a positive reference to friends or like-minded people who are respected. If we can own or run little else, goes the argument, at least we can put our stamp on this and make it our own. But good intentions do not always mean good results.
In case you missed it: Irving and the Lakers’ Dennis Schröder were both ejected from a game Saturday after a verbal altercation between the two. After a personal foul was called on Irving, who was guarding Schröder, the two came together. Irving became visibly upset with Schröder after the guard said something to him; it appears that Schröder said “g–d–n, n—a” to Irving, after which Irving said, ‘Don’t call me that” and, “You don’t know me like that” as he was separated from the L.A. guard.
Sunday afternoon, Irving sent out this tweet:
Of course, once tape of Irving saying the N-word himself during a past workout was soon posted after, Twitter Gotcha was in full effect — as though his views and positions could or should never evolve but instead remain frozen forever, like the prehistoric mosquito trapped in amber in John Hammond’s nascent park. Of course, “Black people say it to each other all the time; what’s the big deal?” also made its annual tour of duty. So now you give credence to Black people’s opinions?
If Irving is, at 29, still figuring some things out about himself, determining what is and is not important to him, then good for him. He’s entitled to think out loud. I didn’t agree with his anti-media stance at the beginning of the season, but so what? People can disagree about one thing and agree on 100 others, and vice versa.
One can only present his or her objection. People, including NBA players — many (certainly not all) of whom use the word in casual conversation — are going to be slow to convince. The word is like a weed, hard to extricate permanently. It’s hard not to feel like a scold sometimes. No doubt, this will be dismissed in some quarters as out of touch with the times. But words, still, matter. NBA players are asked to give their support to so many causes; I do not seek some sort of campaign (though the potential power of one would be substantial). Rather, the hope is that players continue the discussion themselves, among themselves, and that more stars speak up and speak out.
This is not a critique of hip-hop lyrics that feature both versions of the word or the attempts in parts of the Black community to remove some of the historical sting of the word by trying to turn it on its head in casual conversation (and to make it clear that White people cannot take part in that usage in any way, shape or form). It is simply the belief that the word can’t be redeemed. The word is central to the history of trying to keep Black people — literally, at first, and then figuratively — on the plantation. It was on the plantation that Black slaves made the distinction between “house” N-words — those who worked in or around the slavemaster’s home — and “field” N-words, who obviously worked in the fields, chopping or harvesting whatever commodities in which the plantation specialized. The fieldworkers often believed the houseworkers were treated better and in many cases came to sympathize with the slave owner and their families. Even then, it separated us.