The so-called "n-word" is the most powerful word in the English language -- evidenced by the fact that the editors of this newspaper, which occasionally prints the word "fuck," have deemed it unfit to spell it out in this case.
But somehow the hip-hop-inflected "nigga" has become slightly less potent -- not necessarily a racial epithet, if you ask some younger Americans, so much as a way of saying "dude." For the record, the NAACP doesn't agree, condemning both usages.
Which brings us to the L.A. Clippers, who are off to a respectable 10-5 start while carrying the burden of too-great expectations and crazy championship dreams. But they already lead the league in one key category -- igniting national conversations over taboo topics like the proper use of "nigga."
Until some other explosive Clippers issue comes along -- and it surely will in the ESPN-centric, ADD-infected, 24/7 world of sports talk -- talk of the n-word has dogged the team, thanks to Matt Barnes.
It all started, like almost every other cultural controversy these days, with an emotional tweet sent in haste and soon deleted under peer-group pressure.
Clippers' forward Barnes ignited the fire-storm two weeks ago when he was ejected from a game against the OKC Thunder. Barnes had injected himself into a mild altercation between poor little punk Blake Griffin, who apparently can't defend himself despite being built like the Incredible Hulk, and Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka, who's more of a lover than a fighter and, in the words of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, has plenty enough to eat at home with knockout girlfriend singer/actor/model Keri Hilson.
While the game raged on, Barnes fumed in the locker room. During the second half he did what any plugged-in modern athlete would do: sent out a less-than-140-character rant trashing his teammates: "I love my teammates like family, but I'm DONE standing up for these niggas. All this shit does it cost me money!!" he told his 230,000 followers.
Naturally, the Twitterverse exploded in politically correct outrage. Forget the s-word, or the implication that his teammates are so soft they need an enforcer to protect them. How dare Barnes, who, like Griffin, is biracial, use the n-word? It's bad enough when used in private, but to put it out there so publicly? Unforgivable.
The ironic part: it seemed that a lot more white people -- starting with NBA Commissioner David Stern, who fined Barnes $25,000 for "inappropriate language" -- were outraged about it than there were minorities taking offense.
And yet within hours Barnes had deleted the tweet and was offering all kinds of abject apologies -- on Twitter, naturally. His apology set off a backlash among some black sports pundits. And therein lays a tale of a generational and cultural divide that has been simmering just below society's surface for more than a decade and is still playing out in real time.
The always outspoken Charles Barkley, a Hall-of-Famer as a player who has become a go-to quote machine for sports writers looking for a juicy take on a trending topic, immediately stuck up for Barnes.
"Matt Barnes, there is no apology needed," Barkley said. "I'm a black man. I use the n-word. I'm going to continue to use the n-word with my black friends, with my white friends."
Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Wilbon, the black former Washington Post sportswriter who now has a big platform as co-host of the ESPN show Pardon the Interruption, also had Barnes' back.
"I've used it every day, all day, every day of my life," Wilbon said. "I like the word."
So then Barnes, while not exactly withdrawing his official Twitter apology, told the media scrum at the next Clippers practice that he was merely speaking as he always does and will continue to do so.
"If you look at the particular way I said it, kids are seeing that through music, through their favorite artists, and probably some of their favorite movies and even on TV now," Barnes said. "The word is not necessarily a racial slur. Everyone is trying to paint it like I made some kind of hate crime or something. It's a word that I guarantee you will be used out here on the court today. It's a word that I've already heard in the locker room. It's not as big a deal as people are trying to make it...This is a new day and age, and for my generation that's a very common word. You hear it on the radio, you hear it in movies, you hear it on TV. "
Then Barnes broke it down even further.
"I think the way it's said makes people cringe," Barnes said. "I think if you put an -er at the end that makes people cringe, but if there's an -a at the end that's like people saying, 'bro.' That's just how we address people now. That's how we address our friends. That's how we talk. That's how my wife talks. That's how my family talks. People talk that way now. I think if you put the -er on it it's offensive and if you have an -a on it it's more slang."
Barnes was speaking an uncomfortable-but-undeniable truth that anyone who plays ball at any park or playground in L.A. already knew: the "nigga" construction is thrown around by blacks and Latinos -- and to a much lesser degree by whites -- every day, all day. In fact, the modern contemporary usage, far from being a hate term as it was for more than 150 years, has morphed into a term of affection or even endearment.
"It's like when we say 'dude' or 'bro,'" observes my basketball buddy Blake "Bankshot" Hamilton, a white guy. "The funny part is when you hear Mexican kids or Asian kids calling each other 'nigga.' You want to ask them why they're talking like that, but I just let it go."
While Barnes was laying out the street-side explanation, there is also an intellectual angle to the linguistic shift which has been driven by the rap and hip-hop music cultures. It's called "re-appropriation," which the dictionary defines as the cultural process by which a group reclaims --re-appropriates -- terms or artifacts that were previously used in a way disparaging of that group.
In the same way that nigger has evolved into nigga, much of the terminology referring to homosexuality -- such as gay and (to a lesser extent) queer and faggot -- has been reappropriated. A popular comic strip called Dykes to Watch out For by Alison Bechdel even ran from 1987-2008.
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Other examples abound: "mutt" by people of mixed race, "guido" by Italian-Americans, "mick" by Irish Americans, "paki" by Pakistani-Americans, "heeb" by Jews, "chink" by Chinese-Americans, "redneck" by political conservatives and rural Southerners -- there's a hit song called "Redneck Woman" -- and "white trash" by lower-class Caucasians. In the beach cities of Manhattan, Hermosa and Redondo there's even a sub-group of relatively lower-income folks who resist the massive intrusion of up-scale restaurants and McMansions by calling themselves "beach trash."
But that doesn't mean just anyone can go there. You might meet a "guido" or two who wouldn't take kindly to the expression coming from you -- even if they use it around their family. And even if "nigga" is OK for Matt Barnes, here's a good rule of thumb: If you're not sure it's acceptable for you to say it, don't say it.
Or, as Charles Barkley puts it: "If you use it around the wrong brother, the next thing you're going to hear is a clock upside your damn head."
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