We’ve been following the Miami Dolphins’ bullying case starring a dude whose real name is actually Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin here on the BYP, because sports–and sports stories–are never entirely about sports. I’m repeating myself and others when I say that sports is a microcosm of the culture, and this issue is no exception. For those of you who haven’t been following, know this: a few weeks ago, Jonathan Martin, an offensive lineman for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, abruptly left the team. What we learned in the aftermath is that Martin had been the victim of vicious hazing, even though hazing is generally a team ritual reserved for rookies and Martin is no longer in his first year. This hazing/bullying included over 1100 texts between Martin and Richie Incognito, who has emerged as one of the key players involved in bullying Martin. As these stories tend to go, there’s a somewhat unsurprising twist: Some of the texts in the exchange and a voice mail showed that Incognito was using racist language.Incognito, who has been suspended indefinitely, has been defending his name and claiming he’s not a racist. In an interview with Fox Sports, Incognito sounds like an abusive boyfriend, saying that he was coming from a place of love, that he was Martin’s best friend on the team, and he had no idea he was hurting Martin. What’s more, Incognito essentially says that the text messages were taken out of context, that “colorful” language is the mode of communication in NFL locker-rooms. And although the language is horrible when you read it off of a piece of paper, it essentially sounds different when players are talking amongst themselves.
Essentially, as might be expected, Incognito, who like all alleged racists is a good person, is blaming the “culture” of football. Perhaps that’s part of what’s happening here. Current and retired NFL players have sort of echoed this line of thinking by defending Incognito. NFL legend Mike Ditka called Martin a baby, saying Martin should’ve just punched Incognito in the face and handled it himself. Although he later apologized for his comments, New York Giants player Antrel Rolle said that Martin was equally responsible for being bullied. Yet does the hypermasculine culture of football and the vulgarity that is allowed in male homosocial environments such as NFL locker-rooms permit and/or explain the use of language that is off limits to white folks who don’t want to be called racist? Some of Incognito’s black teammates seem to think so. Reports indicate that Incognito was bestowed with the title “honorary black” title and was thusly given permission to call black players nigger. (Clearly, these players did not review my rules.) Hall of Fame tight end and CBS football analyst Shannon Sharpe says hell to the no, though. In an especially passionate comment on the issue, Sharpe said that he was embarrassed that black players allowed Incognito to speak that way:httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=FxLXEkl5iP4
I am a Shannon Sharpe fan for many, many reasons. I really respect what he has to say about this matter. I think his point is well-taken. I can also understand why he, as a former NFL player and a black man who understands the connotation of racist language, would be embarrassed and disappointed. He knows the NFL locker-room way better than I ever could. And he is right that the black players in the Dolphins’ locker-room–and I hope not all of them co-signed on this “honorary black” stuff–should have shut this down. I see that; I get that.Even though I agree that the players should have checked Richie, I understand that the implication of that argument is that the black players are responsible for Incognito’s continued antics. And you know what? I’m not here for black people being responsible for white people’s poor behavior, their racism. I’m not here for white people’s continued ignorance about why they shouldn’t be saying nigger–and it’s nigger, not nigga, when it comes from the mouths of white folks–if they don’t want to out themselves as racist. Richie Incognito is a grown-ass white man, with access to Google and a library and a television with cable. He should know that, even if the ghost of Martin Luther King, Jr. had visited him, pulled some Rafiki-ass honorary negro ritual, and said “It’s cool,” that it wasn’t. Such “permission” is fraudulent at best.
This is what Richie Incognito and any white person who idiotically says, “But the rappers say it, why can’t I?” need to sit down and understand: Despite everything about your white self that you have been socialized to believe, you do not–and should not–have access to everything. (In fact, you should probably have access to fewer things, but that’s another blog.) The desire to say nigger, if I may paraphrase the great humanitarian Derek Zoolander, in the way that black people use it, the desire to receive “permission” is an aspect of whiteness that they, if they really are the good people they say they are, need to learn to control and eliminate. And that is not the job of their best black friends or their teammates. It is their responsibility, and theirs alone.Black folks love to get on television and tell other black people they have no excuse. Well, you know what? White people really have no excuse. In this post-racial age where you can find the answer to just about anything by swiping a few words into your phone, white people need to do better–by themselves. They are not ignorant Huck Finns floating down the river of life with no access to the tools that would fix their racism. As such, they need to stop feigning ignorance and love, and consult the technology they claim to have invented solely. They need to stop asking black people for permission and direction and do the work.
As a younger black person who has read a book or two, I totally understand Mr. Sharpe and his desire for black people. black men especially, to fight all of the fights. But this one, like so many other things, is on white folks. Perhaps the post-race, the millennial moment is less about discussing if racism is dead, and more about asking why, when there is so much information freely available, white folks can’t get a clue. Because if we can hold those black players to the fire, as Mr. Sharpe rightly does, then Richie Incognito needs to feel every degree of the heat, too.