Sportswriter Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser’s African-American foil on the fluffy ESPN show “Pardon the Interruption” and hardly a rabble-rouser, shocked his audience this week when he announced that he is an aficionado of the word “nigger” (but not in public), and objects to being told that there is something wrong with that, especially by white folks. The issue came up regarding an uproar over a tweet, since deleted, from an NBA player using the word to criticize his team mates. [ Aside: It is funny how frequently a single post on Ethics Alarms about a topic—say political correctness, word censorship, civility and the morass of related ethical issues—seems to trigger an explosion of news stories in the same area. Undoubtedly it is because the proximity of the post itself influences my judgment regarding which events deserve comment, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. This is similar to the phenomenon where you think you have heard a word or phrase for the first time, and suddenly you’re aware of it everywhere.] Wilbon said, unapologetically,
“People can be upset with me if they want, I, like a whole lot of people, use the N-word all day, every day, my whole life … I have a problem with white people framing the discussion for the use of the N-word.”
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz this weekend is this:
Is Wilbon’s defense of using the word “nigger”ethical?
I’m not sure right now, and since I’m not sure yet, I’ll make some random observations while I ponder:
1. There is something just off about defending the use of “nigger” while using “N-word” to say so. Hypocritical? Cowardly? Stupid?
2. Who says “white people” are framing the discussion about the use of “nigger,” Michael? The cultural message is the same to everyone, and I believe the messengers have been multi-racial, with blacks even taking a lead role.
3. Wilbon’s statement is a variation of the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody does it,” and just as illogical. His version is “I’ve always done this, so its OK.” Same thing.
4. Charles Barkley, the intentionally ethically-obtuse former basketball star, immediately agreed with Wilbon, saying, “White America don’t get to dictate how me and Shaq talk to each other.” Two thoughts: 1) Any time Barkley agrees with you, its a strong clue that you said something foolish, and 2) This statement is indistinguishable, ethically, from the Grand Imperial Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan saying, “Blacks don’t get to dictate how me and David Dukes talk to each other.”
5. Explain to me how concerned African-Americans can persuade whites that referring to African-American with the denigrating term “nigger” is socially unacceptable in public or private if respected African-Americans in the public eye say they’ll keep doing it, like doing it, have always done it, and that nothing any white person says will influence him not to.
6. Explain to me why any white teen, hearing this from Wilbon, is wrong to wonder why it is fair that whites can’t frame the word for blacks, but blacks can frame the word for whites.
7. Wilbon deserves credit for being honest, and bringing this long-simmering controversy to a boil. This is what people mean when they say, “Let’s talk honestly about race.”
As readers here know, I am unalterably opposed to banning words and phrases. I am not, however, opposed to designating certain words as inappropriate for public discourse, the workplace and routine conversation, which is what Wilbon is talking about. I think, considering the use of “nigger” through the centuries as a tool of racial dominance, prejudice and discrimination, with all the tangible harm it has caused, Wilbon statement was irresponsible, and his practice of using the word “all day, every day” is unethical.
Since he won’t take that from me, a white man, here is the wisdom of sports columnist Jason Whitlock, in these excerpts from his essay on the ESPN website:
“We have bought the false narrative promoted by rappers and the corporations that pay rappers to make black-denigration music that the N-word has been stripped of its power to denigrate. We foolishly believe that religiously using the slur given to us by enslavers who saw us as subhuman is a righteous act of defiance against The Man. Think about it. Imagine Kunta Kinte in “Roots” hanging from a tree being beaten by the overseer for refusing to take the name Toby. Fast-forward 200 years and imagine a well-intentioned white person counseling a young black man to avoid adopting the slur given to him by a white bigot. A fight would break out. “Give me the N-word, or give me death!” ….Banning the N-word in the workplace is not a threat to American freedom or a racist assault on black America….I’m a huge Barkley fan. But he doesn’t remotely understand the complexity of the N-word issue. He gets paid millions of dollars to think about basketball and serve as a celebrity. Maintaining relevance as a celebrity requires retaining traction with young people. A star doesn’t want to skew too old. When a star reaches middle age, there is pressure to adopt some of the sensibilities of the younger generation. It’s uncool to sound like an old fuddy-duddy…the N-word is a not a generational issue. The N-word was never a fad. It was a primary tool in the enslavement, disenfranchisement and cultural destruction of a race of people…The debate surrounding the N-word isn’t young people versus old people. It’s intelligence versus ignorance, values versus no values, family versus dysfunction and responsible/restrained capitalism versus capitalism left unchecked.
The values and perspectives pervasive in youth culture are not rooted in family. They’re rooted in neglect, dysfunction and irresponsibility. The new normal should be rejected. Hearing the N-word, bitch, ho and other pejoratives tossed around inside public gathering spots should be disconcerting. The N-word’s ascension to black America’s favorite word in the dictionary is alarming. How a person defines himself or herself determines how he or she will be treated by the world….I still use the N-word privately. I’m not proud of this fact. I would never defend my use of the word. I use it far less than I did a decade ago. I’ve been battling for years to eliminate it from my vocabulary. I object when anyone, regardless of color, uses the word around me. The N-word is like fast food or cigarettes. It’s unhealthy. It is the foundational fertilizer at the root of the maladies plaguing black America. The word is more negatively powerful today than it was at its invention. It’s a sign of the depth of our self-hatred…Its defenders cannot rationally explain its importance. They just know they can’t live without it.”
I’m with Whitlock. Wilbon is wrong, and his position is unethical.