Thursday, November 30, 2006 Updated: December 7, 1:29 PM ET
A word with consequences
By LZ Granderson Page 2
If you visit the iTunes Web site right now and preview the first five tracks from The Game's new CD, "Doctor's Advocate," you will hear the n-word about 15 times in a 2½ minute span.
I bring this up because "Doctor's Advocate" was the top-selling CD in the country last week. The same week Michael Richards was blasted for his "I'm not a racist" racist rant.
The Game isn't shy about using the n-word, but maybe he should reconsider.
Now, I'm not trying to call out The Game. In fact, I'm sure I used the word a couple of times last week myself. And I'm certainly not cutting Kramer any slack either. But I do find it's getting more and more difficult to intelligently celebrate a black man who repeatedly calls himself "n-----" and then chastise a white guy for saying "He's a n-----." It just seems like there's a disconnect there.
So, though I usually tend to ignore the opportunistic exploits of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, I do applaud this week's news conference in which he challenged Hollywood and musicians to abandon the word. Between bites of bean pies and Ramen noodles, I and other fake kente cloth-wearing Generation Xers foolishly believed that if we took the word from whites that somehow it would diminish its power. Instead we've made the nation numb through our hypocrisy.
But while Jackson is on his current crusade for equality, may I suggest he make a couple of stops into the locker room? Rappers and actors come and go. But athletes? They are forever. They visit our schools, do community service in our neighborhoods, live in our hearts. If they can get people to shave their heads, buy a pair of shoes, or consider wearing a pair of tights, they can change people's attitudes toward the n-word.
Anyone who has ever been routinely in a college, pro or even a high school locker room has, at some point, heard the n-word. You might never see a black athlete use it in a TV interview, but believe me, if he's using it in the locker room it's not falling on deaf ears.
At first I thought about talking to AI, LeBron and other black athletes as well as notable figures such as Cornell West and Corey Booker to get their take, but that just felt done to me. So I flipped it. Over the past few days I spoke with a number of white athletes, agents and team personnel to get their take. Under conditions of anonymity, nearly all of them said that when they hear the word it makes them uncomfortable because they have been taught it is the worst word in the English language.
And it is.
But why do I and others insist on keeping it alive, as opposed to letting it die the way "mulatto" and "octoroon" fell from our collective social consciousness? We can continue to believe that it's OK for blacks but not whites to say it, but only three things come from the "do as I say, not as I do" approach to life: resentment, rebellion and worst of all, apathy.
"I've heard the word so much that it doesn't even bother me," says one of the white athletes. "I would never use it, but I'm used to hearing black people use it all of the time, so I don't think anything of it.
"I know it's hard for me to say this, because I'm not in that position, but if my people were the minority and oppressed for so long, the last thing I would want is for someone to call me that word."
A public relations executive who works with high-level athletes said he wishes "they would use another word."
"It's always n-this and n-that," he says. "On one hand it's just a word, but being raised in an environment where you're taught to never, ever use it because it's so painful, and then see the people who are supposed to be hurt by it use it with each other all of the time, I think sends a mixed message. I'm not using it, but nowadays you hear Latinos use it, young white kids use it. It's ironic that as the world gets more and more politically correct, you hear that word more often, not less."
CC Carnie, president of Serchlite Music, has been working in the hip-hop industry for more than 12 years. She also organizes parties in conjunction with a lot professional athletes. She says she talked with a lot of people both black and white about the Richards scenario, and she was "disappointed but not surprised that a lot in the white community don't see it as big deal."
"They say black comedians use the word 'cracker' all of the time and nothing happens to them," says Carnie, who is white. "I think the attitude is a reflection of a much larger experience they don't understand, and that word is so powerful that there is no white derogatory word that is equivalent. They still don't understand the whole impact of slavery, and not being able to be educated, or vote, or the separation of families. They think the civil rights movement happened a hundred years ago, and I'm like no, it was less than 50 years ago."
If an athlete such as LeBron James condemned using the n-word, youths likely would listen.
Carnie says it's been her experience that rappers tend to use the n-word more than athletes, but that it would have a profound affect if "LeBron [James], Carmelo [Anthony], Donovan [McNabb], Michael Vick came out and said let's stop using that word."
"For the most part, educated white people know not to use that word, but if you really want it to disappear it has to be resolved within the black community, and athletes carry as much weight as anyone."
MC Serch has been as true to the game as any artist and is perhaps the most respected white rapper in hip-hop history. He says changing people's attitudes about the word is about consistency and education.
"I don't even notice it 90 percent of the time it's said around me," he says. "I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, I think its just a thing. It's a bad thing this week because of the whole Michael Richards situation, but in six months when people are listening to a Game record, or Nas or Jay-Z, will it still be a bad thing? I doubt it. If you really want to get people to stop using it, you have to talk to the young kids and explain to them why they shouldn't use it. But you can't just go in and do it when it's in the media. You have to do it all of the time."
You know, a friend of mine jokingly said to me that as black men we're all just one police altercation away from being a n-----. I laughed, but as I walked away I realized his statement had a lot more truth to it than what I was comfortable with. We can get the degrees, the fame, the accolades and the money, but to some we will always be n------. I'm all right with that because there's nothing I can do about it. But that doesn't mean we have to see each other that way.
So this holiday season I've decided to give myself the gift of dignity by cutting the n-word out of my vocab. I'm not on some PC crusade, and I'm not trying to be sanctimonious. But to paraphrase Luke 6:45, a man speaks what is in his heart. In a moment of anger, Michael Richards did. When my feet are held to the fire, I don't want the n-word to come out. More importantly, I don't want an environment where hearing it no longer bothers people. White people should be uncomfortable when they hear that word. But black people should be, too.
As a columnist, I always sit in front of my computer with two goals to be honest with the readers and to try to write something that touches them. With that said, I was truly humbled by the overwhelming number of e-mails I received in response to this piece. From soldiers in Iraq to schoolteachers in Japan, readers from all walks of life chimed in on the subject matter with personal stories, additional questions, thank yous and rebuttals. I am still going through my in-box but I didn't want too much time to pass before saying thank you. I also wanted to share a note that I found particularly inspiring.
It was from Walt Javian Walker, starting right tackle for the University of South Florida football team. Walt told me the column prompted a dialogue within the squad and the eventual decision by the players to not only stop using the n-word in the locker room, but to rid it from their vocabulary as well. Many of you who wrote in asked what you could do to help race relations. I'm no expert, but I believe Walt and the USF Bulls are onto something not being afraid to talk to each other with an open heart.
I have never rooted for USF in anything before in my life, but you better believe when the Bulls face East Carolina in the Papajohns.com Bowl on Dec. 23, I'll be pulling for them. In more ways than one.
Editor's note: This update was added a week after the original column was published.LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN the Magazine and host of the ESPN360 talk show "Game Night." He is currently working on his first book. LZ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.