The power of sport in the American psyche and the lengths to which competitive play entertains and thrills fans is one reason why we watch sports. Americans are equally captivated by the personal lives of athletes off the field—from their charity and romances to their antics and meltdowns. The viewing world often venerates athletes, particularly in the high revenue sports of football and basketball, placing them on a public pedestal for their talents and assuming their personal character should be infallible because of their athletic prowess.
To the chagrin of many fans, players, coaches and owners, Philadelphia Eagles wide-receiver Riley Cooper just had to go there at a recent public concert and put the “er” in the N-word. Whether folks believe this act to be shameful and appalling or believe the recourse of his actions in the media to be blown out of proportion, the majority of white Americans don’t understand that it’s not about the word. It’s about a 400-year-old history contained in this word. Let’s call it what it really is—the nigger word. This word is symbolic. It was originally borrowed from the Spanish word “Negro” and used extensively in early European history beginning with the Portuguese, Spanish and English. Then landing a home in colonial America during the transatlantic slave trade, the nigger word rose in prominence as an offensive epithet. Wide spread in usage during the emerging slave economy with the intent to gain a psychological advantage over people of African descent, the nigger word has a long and curious life within US society.
It is deemed the “worst of the worst” of words, representing a reprehensible time in our country—a time when folks were dehumanized, enslaved, tortured, and even killed for the color of their skin. It’s not simply that Riley Cooper uttered this word. It’s that this word is a part of his vocabulary, which must mean that it was acceptable language somewhere along the course of his life, whether at home or school with family or friends. It is doubtful this is first time that Cooper has used the word, despite his pleas to the contrary. Yet, even if he cognitively refrains from speaking such language nowadays, countless other Whites do engage in racially charged discourse—of course, most only do so behind closed doors. This is called backstage racism. Research reveals that white Americans often engage in backstage racism using offensive racist language behind the scenes and out of earshot of the public. And when it is said at those dinner tables and backyard discussions free of any Blacks, it is NOT in an attitude of deep respect and equality toward one’s fellow man. What Cooper did was bring that backstage racism to the front stage—something that millions of white Americans are terrified of doing for fear of being called a racist. But when this word is spoken as a means to show power or privilege over another, that’s a form of racism, regardless in what company you are among.
The Florida native’s recent usage of the highly offensive language and his sincere, though uncritical apology is deeply unsettling for many sports fans. The fact that Cooper felt comfortable uttering the nigger word in public speaks volumes to its continued usage in popular culture. In fact, one common though oblivious argument by Whites is that “Blacks use this word as well.” But black Americans use the “niggah” word from an entirely different context. This is termed counter-framing. Counter-framing is a strategy that opposes an original objectionable frame. This can be done in a multitude of ways. Here, Blacks have attempted to take back a word that was used for centuries to abuse and denigrate them. Just listen to any popular Hip Hop star and the use of the word is evident. This same type of counter-framing was seen several years ago when a few black rappers such as Outkast and Lil John were seen wearing the confederate flag. In the white imagination, this is confusing. And when the public chastises a fellow white person caught in public spewing anti-black hate, many white people come forward crying foul. But they don’t grasp the concept of counter-framing. Hence, thinking this gives oneself a free pass to say racist terms is ignorant of history, if not senseless and unabashedly racist. Right or wrong, some Blacks are taking the nigger word back and using it in attempts to empower themselves. By doing this, it deflects a painful history, thus taking some of the sting out of it. Sadly, the reality is that this form of counter-framing can never fully undo the original white racial frame(s). The word “nigger” will no longer hold Blacks down under the yoke of white supremacy as it once did, but it still insults their personhood when spoken by a white person.
It should be no surprise that athletes bring with them to the competitive world of sport a broader racial framing of society they inherited from their forbearers. Race lessons are passed on within social networks and kinship circles of family, peers, and significant friends. Lurking just beneath the surface of our reality, racial biases are formed through a process of historical relations of unequal power and distribution of resources for more advantaged groups at the expense of people of color in what analysts call “systemic racism.” At the heart of American racial inequality is a system grounded in an ordered ranking of men over women, white over black, and Christian over non-Christian; a hierarchy where early Europeans and their North American contemporaries conveniently placed themselves at the top and Blacks at the bottom of the social ladder. White folks continue to experience this (often unknowingly) through white racial priming. That is to say, how white Americans systematically internalize racist attitudes, stereotypes, assumptions, fears and fictitious racial scripts, which fit into a Eurocentric framing of the world, is expressly negative.
Riley could have set a new precedent among white people by going on record and admitting that like most white Americans, he is recovering racist, having grown up engrossed in the word as it was freely used in his extended white social networks. At some point, he began befriending and competing alongside African Americans. It was then, likely, that he began to demystify his received racial biases that many Whites struggle to overcome. But ingrained deep within one’s consciousness, it will inevitably bubble to the surface at some point(s) in life, despite the cognitive awareness of its despicable nature.
Instead, Riley planted doubt in the minds of his fellow black NFL teammates, as they know full well America’s deplorable past. Until then, his words are empty for all of his black teammates are still left wondering if and when he says this behind closed doors. This was evident when Michael Vick was asked if he knew that Cooper was capable of saying such terminology. “No,” Vick said. “That’s the thing. That’s not the guy we know. We know Riley.” But then Vick paused for a beat and followed with, “Or maybe we don’t.”
Dr. Darron Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Follow him on twitter @drdarronsmith.