We know that Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Richie Incognito called his teammate Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger." Today, Warren Sapp told Dan Patrick that Incognito called him "a nigger" when the two lined up years ago, when they were still in the league. At first glance, that Richie sounds like a flaming, unabashed racist, doesn't he? Well if you thought that, apparently you'd be wrong.
Some of the lineman's current black teammates, like Mike Wallace and Brent Grimes, have been vocal in their support for Incognito, saying that he's not racist. Former teammate Ricky Williams said the same, just yesterday on this website. And today, the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero published a piece about Richie Incognito's status in the Miami Dolphins' locker room, attempting to explain why and how the white offensive lineman felt comfortable enough to freely use the worst slur in American English. That's when this happened:
"Richie is honarary," one player who left the Dolphins this offseason told me today. "I don't expect you to understand because you're not black. But being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It's about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from. What you've experienced. A lot of things."
Oh, OK. Incognito's an honorary black guy, then. Just a misunderstanding. There's just a slight problem, though. There's no such thing as an honorary black person. And that's because, after nearly half a millennium of slavery and active, institutional racism on these lands, there is no longer anything honorable about being black.
We all know this, of course. Let's run down all of the most common black stereotypes: Stupid. Lazy. Immature. Inarticulate. Impulsive. Violent. How many of these traits are good, desirable, honorable? And surely, it's no accident that any African-American who's smart, or rich, or articulate, or has white friends is considered white. These are all good things, traits of which whites are the sole proprietors.
So maybe Incognito deserves the benefit of the doubt. Maybe because he's spent so much of his life around blacks, he's aware that, like white people, black people are unique, each one a tiny part of an immense, indescribably diverse diaspora. Maybe he was like a brother to a few black guys. Did his background and experience turn him into some sort of unofficial black guy with a license to run around saying what he wants? Fuck no, no matter what some former Dolphin says.
The unfortunate reality in this country is that racial stereotypes have been so widely taught and internalized that we judge people, first and chiefly, by the color of their skin. Incognito probably feels black sometimes, like when he's drunkenly calling Mike Pouncey "nigga." He might even think he's black sometimes. But fortunately for him, Incognito is white. He doesn't have to worry about whether or not he can hail a cab. He doesn't have to worry about being followed in a store. He doesn't have to worry about being stopped and frisked for no reason. He doesn't have to worry about being excluded from a job. He doesn't have to worry about anyone holding their ground. And if he can turn all this around and run for state senate one day, he won't have to worry about being confused for a member of the waitstaff at a hoity-toity social event.
And truly, objectively, that's not a lot to ask for in life, is it? People trust that he's nice, decent, honorable, even though he clearly isn't a nice, decent, honorable dude. The thing is, though, that there are millions of Americans who do have to worry about these things, and they're largely, though not exclusively, black.
When Africans were still being shuttled to this nation as livestock, whites came up with a word for blacks that still maintains after so many other words have been stamped out, expunged, wiped from our tongues. They called blacks niggers.
It was a word, despicable almost from the very start, that was a verbal declaration of power. When uttered, the word said as much about who flung it as it did about who received it. It said that whites, particularly white men, had power, and that blacks had none.
This, of course, isn't unique to blacks. Every minority and marginalized group has their own slur that stings, that identifies them as powerless, and that just doesn't fit anywhere else. But it's why even though there are names for whites, and particularly white men, like honky and cracker, they just don't sting the way nigger does. It's why Barack Obama is invariably half-black, even though he's also half-white. It's why Martin was a half-nigger, instead of a half-honky.
And it's also probably why it was almost humorous to Sapp when a young Richie Incognito was desperate enough to look an NFL legend across the line of scrimmage and call him a nigger. Overmatched, Incognito had no power. And it's why it was humorous and even endearing when blacks called Incognito a nigga, and allowed him to refer to them as such in turn. It was a show of trust, of equality, of brotherhood. And really, that's what sports are all about.
But Incognito's choice to throw that word in the face of Sapp and Martin was a show of dominance. With Sapp, it didn't work, but with a younger player like Martin, already being hazed and without much experience, it stung. It wounded. It was a declaration not only of what Martin was, but of what Martin was to Incognito.
Through his actions, though, we also saw what Incognito was. Maybe he really feels black sometimes. Maybe he thinks he's black sometimes. But he's not honorary. He's not a brother.