I thought of this quote from Randall Kennedy, author of a book about the N-word, while reading last week’s ESPN investigation into the workplace culture at the Phoenix Suns. In the story, former Suns coach Earl Watson alleges Robert Sarver, who bought the franchise in 2004, asked why Golden State Warriors star Draymond Green was allowed to use the N-word but he wasn’t (Sarver is white and Green is Black). Watson, who is Black and Hispanic, told Sarver it was unacceptable for him to use the word but claims Sarver went on to use it several times anyway. The article alleges Sarver used the N-word on other occasions to employees and also used misogynistic, inappropriate and “racially insensitive” language, which is the new term people use instead of saying racist. Dozens of employees interviewed for the article describe a toxic atmosphere at the Suns that took a toll on their personal lives. Some said they had to seek professional help as a result, including one female staffer who said she contemplated suicide.
These allegations are incredibly serious, and go far beyond the workplace micro-aggressions which far too many Black people have to deal with. Suns employees were, according to the ESPN story, forced to endure this type of language and behavior on a regular basis. Because Sarver wields huge amounts of influence over staff at the Suns, the imbalance of the power dynamic means such misconduct amounts to abuse.
Sarver denies the allegations in the ESPN story, including ever using the N-word. But if Sarver did indeed wonder why he couldn’t use it I’m more than willing to explain. I personally don’t believe anyone of any color should use the word. But the subject comes up quite a bit when a white person is caught using it.
It takes me back to the stories my Grandpa Freddy used to tell me of the world he grew up in during the era of segregation. He – and nearly every other Black person –wasn’t allowed to look a white man in the eyes while talking to him, instead diverting his gaze to the ground (that’s why he told me to always look a man, especially a white man, directly in the eyes when speaking to them.)
He told me of having to cross the street if a white man was walking in his direction. He told me of sundown towns where Black men would literally be lynched if they were caught in the town after dusk. He told me how white people never gave him the respect of calling him “mister” but instead referred to him as “boy”. Which is why he told me never to allow a white man to ever refer to me as “boy”, even in jest, but to always correct them. And he would emphasize always.
And always in the background was the N-word. It was used against our ancestors for centuries and against Grandpa Freddy by white men, women and children throughout his life. He told me how it was hurled at him as if it was a pronoun like “he” or “him”. He had no choice over the matter, in those days the N-word had been assigned to him and every other Black person.
And it’s that legacy that explains why I don’t think anyone – whether it’s Sarver, Green or anyone else on earth – should ever use the N-word. Indeed, in my first anthology, I explored these feelings, and the lessons my grandfather taught me, in a poem called N-Word, a part of which is below:
They’ve been spearing our ancestors with these six letters
Rolling so easily off their tongues since they stole us from our native lands
Pressed into the depths of our minds by wicked hands
Drowning in a never ending quick sand of hate
It exists as a scar from centuries of racism refusing to heal
A full course meal of poison served fresh
Employed to impose installments of an inferiority complex
Why won’t we let this word die?
How can it still caress our everyday lives?
Massaged into young minds while creating mental genocide
Murdering the pride our ancestors died fighting for
Destroying the mind our forefathers tried defending
Ignoring the cries our people suffered
The stolen dignity
Now, many of us don’t see it as being that serious
Civilizing the work of barbarians
They minimize it with ridiculous notions
Drinking potions of hypnotic contempt for themselves
Different spellings meaning different things
As the argument goes
We can take the power away and make it our own
Forming some non-derogatory version
Ignoring the history of its undertones
It’s screamed into microphones nationwide
Blistering sounds piercing the ear on every street corner
Ignorant mind states are created
Once stronger than steel become heavily sedated
Duplicated eyes seeing the word as a magic sword only cutting in the hands of certain people
They think the word doesn’t offend, but only the person does
The hatred for the history of the word becomes lost like self pride
As a word aimed to dehumanize becomes part of everyday language
I stand mesmerized at how a word once a signal of hostility became a term announcing affection
A piece of clay shaped into different meanings
I’m only seeing one way to view a swastika
Or a confederate flag
That is the insidious power of the N-word. We are in 2021, and Black people should not be subject to the scenes described in the ESPN story, whether it’s in the NBA or any other business in the United States of America.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has rightfully developed a reputation as being the most progressive commissioner in US sports. When he banned Donald Sterling from the NBA and stripped him of authority over the Los Angeles Clippers following racist remarks, he showed he was unafraid to take a strong stance. If the NBA’s investigation into Sarver’s time at the Suns finds him guilty of misconduct, Silver needs to take another stand against racism and misogyny.