Thursday, August 1, 2013

N Danger

By now, you've heard it. Or at least heard about it. Riley Cooper, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, got caught on camera saying, "n****r" while at a Kenny Chesney concert. There are a few different responses that this story has brought about in me, so I'll try to elaborate upon each of them.

(1.) Comedy

There's an overly-abundant amount of humor to be found in the fact that Cooper drops this word at the one place in Philadelphia where you're not very likely to spot a black person: a Kenny Chesney concert. [I said Philly, not Pittsburgh...shut up.]

In the now infamous video, we never see exactly who Cooper's talking about, or why he's so mad. It actually feels unlikely that the people he's calling "n****rs" are even of color, simply because of the circumstances. [NOTE: If the people and/or reason have been revealed by now, I apologize for my lack of research here. I've been waiting to hear something about this; but as of writing this, no one seems to have mentioned it. I admit, though, that I've been short on free time the last couple of days, and could easily have missed something.] And if Cooper really did use the word on someone who isn't black, then maybe he's just a Donald Glover disciple?

(.2) Indifference

If, indeed, Cooper used the word on people who weren't black, I'm not sure I care. I actually agree 200% with the point Glover is making in that clip. Words are only words, and only have as much power as you appropriate to them. Do I like the n word? No, of course not; the fact that I say "n word" instead of the actual word is, in part, evidence of that. But it's also a product of 30+ years of being conditioned to hate it. There are, in actuality, no "bad words." There are only words that people have been told by other people that they're not supposed to say or hear. A word is only as powerful as the intentions of the person using it.

If, while walking down the street, I turn to an approaching stranger and say, "Fuck off," there's an intent to harm and/or offend that justifies anger on the stranger's part. But what if, instead, I drop my beer at the bar and say, "Fuck!" as a stranger walks past. What harm has been inflicted upon the stranger? Has blood started pouring from his ears? Has a demon sprang forth from the earth and started raping his parents? Of course not. It's a silly, outdated concept to have words you can't say.

So if Cooper used the word specifically because the people at whom he was angry were black, then this is a story. If he simply used it because he was angry at people, regardless of their race, what? It's a word, and that's all.

(3.) Fear

This aspect may not be as readily apparent to the "third parties" of this story. I put that term in quotation marks because I'm being a bit abstract with it. By third party, I'm not talking only about everyone on the scene outside of Cooper and his invisible foe. I mean...anyone, anywhere, who isn't Riley Cooper and who isn't black.

Though, speaking scientifically, I'm only half black, I have always identified myself as black, without any fractional qualifiers. When you're mulatto, white people see you as "half black", and black people see you as "black*". There's an unwillingness by a white person to see you as fitting into their category. Now, the vast majority of the time, it's not a malicious attempt at ostracizing you. But its subtlety belies its power. "You're not exactly like me, so you're not equal to me."

So speaking as a black* man, I'll let all of you third parties in on our biggest fear in "post racial America": The wolf in sheep's clothing.

Look, the guys in the sheets burning crosses in the backwoods of Alabama are scary. But they are scary to me in the same way that the Taliban fighter in the mountains of Afghanistan is scary to the average person in small town America. They are extremists, living a primitive reality, and I will probably never be within their reach. And, odds are, if I ever am, I'll know that I'm putting myself in harm's way long before I'm ever actually there.

No, when it comes to terrorism, the guys who inspire the most paranoia and Hollywood storylines are the sleeper cells. The guys who live next door, that you play cards with once a month, whose kids play little league with your kids. The guys that terrify me, and who shake me to my core, are the hidden racists. The guys you work with and hang out at the bar with, who you would vouch for in a heartbeat. And, from all evidence available for review at the moment, that is Riley Cooper.

Cooper works in a profession dominated by black men. He plays a position in football where 91% of the top players last year were black. His coworkers, some of his best friends, are/were black. And none of them saw this coming. They thought they knew him, and they trusted him. And now they don't know what to make of him.

I have a lot of white friends. Some I would go to war with; an even smaller number I would die for. But, a social situation doesn't pass where there isn't a little man with a rifle standing guard in my temple, sights trained on the line, waiting for someone—anyone—to cross it. It's something I live with, that I can't imagine not living with. Every room I walk into, every smiling stranger I shake hands with, I brace myself against the unknown threat that could be lying beneath the surface. The knife you don't see cuts deeper than the one you do. And those who would be your enemies understand this better than those who only wish to be your friend.

If Riley Cooper truly harbors racist attitudes, leanings, and thoughts; if he's full of bigoted feelings that he's kept closeted until now, for the sake of his professional advancement; then let the legacy of his story be the education of those who don't live with the fear that I carry with me, everywhere I go. The fear that every black person—standing in plain sight—carries with them, everywhere they go.

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