We wear the mask that grins and lies
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes —
This debt we pay to human guile.
—Paul Laurence Dunbar
The resignation of University of Oklahoma baseball coach Larry Cochell
for using a racial epithet to describe a black ballplayer places the 65-year-old
white coach in an infamous pantheon of sports notables who’ve choked on their
own shoe leather.
Who can forget the great Paul Hornung, who recently said that Notre Dame should
lower its standards to snag more black ballplayers? Not that plenty of big-time
college programs haven’t done exactly that. Or the avuncular Al Campanis, proclaiming
on Nightline in 1987 that blacks “lack the necessities to be managers
or general managers in baseball.” All from a man who supposedly was a good friend
of the great Jackie Robinson, and who signed many black players. And the venerable
pontifex-maximus of Las Vegas oddsmakers, Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, forthrightly
stating — again on TV — that “blacks were bred to be better athletes than whites.”
Now comes Cochell, who, in an interview with ESPN’s Gary Thorne and Kyle Peterson,
paid a left-handed compliment to freshman outfielder Joe Dunigan III: “There
are honkies and white people and there are niggers and black people. There’s
no nigger him.”
Many black ballplayers came to Cochell’s defense, including the father of the
ballplayer he spoke about. But it didn’t save Cochell from public opprobrium,
and, like Snyder and Campanis, a speedy exile to oblivion.
But let’s hang on a minute here. The hypocrisy in America is monumental between
what is allowed by our rules of civic discourse and what some white people say
when they think the microphones are turned off — the harsh language of boardrooms,
barrooms, even dinner conversations. The same palaver is bruited about quite
freely, without fear of exposure by the P.C. police. Let’s not get self-righteous.
Let’s talk about race — openly, and without getting down on someone with a loose
mouth like Cochell’s.
It’s been called “the most vile of epithet,” “the ultimate insult,” a word so
terrible that it’s now standard practice to refer to it as the “N word.” I realize
that I’m going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that any of the above are
true. I can think of more lacerating insults than being called a nigger. Maybe
it’s because most of the people who have called me one haven’t been white folks.
They’ve been blacks, and over the years, I’ve developed a thick skin to such
quasi-insults from both whites and blacks.
Cochell is not a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan; I don’t believe that
he has ever mistreated any of his black ballplayers. Just because he uttered
this moth-eaten slur doesn’t make him a bigot. At most, he is guilty of bad
judgment, and grandiose stupidity. Wouldn’t Cochell and the black folks he offended
be better served if the coach had called a team meeting with the aggrieved parties
and explained himself, offered a needed apology and been allowed to resume his
career? Some meaningful dialogue might have taken place.
Honest dialogue is where it starts. It’s become standard practice by
the praetorians of P.C. to pillory anyone who says something offensive or off-color.
But that doesn’t do a damn thing to change the feelings or attitudes of the
offending party. Nada. White people who refer to blacks as niggers in polite
company are legion. And then there are white folks who are generally turned
off by it. Instead of raking some white person over the coals because of his
bad choice of words, I propose simply ignoring him. I’m calling on my black
brothers and sisters to rise above the “vile epithet” and realize that the problem
rests not in us but those who feel it necessary to try to demean us.
I’m also calling on the guardians of P.C. to do likewise. Don’t destroy the
reputation of people because of their idiotic faux pas. A person who says nigger
doesn’t tell you anything about the person who said it, and it’s not the time
to come to blows or feel terminally offended. Even the redneck cops in law enforcement
agencies, who try to bait you into a confrontation by calling you nigger (I’ve
had this happen to me too, and played it cool as a master poker player) are
dumbfounded when you let it run off your back. But these same coppers wouldn’t
hesitate to go into a burning building to rescue some black children. Things
are infinitely more complex than the P.C. police would have us believe.
Trying to initiate a brutally honest conversation about race among blacks and
whites is like trying to pull an elephant up a hill with a string. Standard
reactions include “Can we talk about something else?,” “I’m not prejudiced”
and that timeworn phrase “Some of my best friends are black.” It’s all bullshit.
We’ve all been tainted by prejudice, and it influences us all, in small and
large ways. And yes, we all carry our own “nigger” around inside of us, like
it or not. He’s there, plenty of them among the black upper classes, and still
more among white folks of all stripes. He’s a vague, abstract creature who has
many faces. And until white and black folks get over their unwillingness to
talk about their dark traveling companion, and feelings about racial issues,
we will always inhabit two worlds, gazing at each other across a chasm.
Black America has more pressing problems than worrrying over an ancient slur.
But there is hope. As Randall Kennedy states in Nigger: The Strange
Career of a Troublesome Word: “Still,
despite these costs, there is much to be gained by allowing people to yank nigger
away from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation, and to convert
the ‘N word’? . . . from a negative into positive appellation.” This has already
happened thanks to Hollywood. When Denzel Washington refers to Ethan Hawk as
“my nigger,” in Training Day, or when Ving Rhames? asks Bruce
Willis in Pulp Fiction “Is you my nigger,” it’s a term of friendship.
Maybe, just maybe this vile epithet will lose its sting, and we’ll all get over
In the meantime, let Larry Cochell play ball.