Jonathan Martin Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images
With the utterance of one word on a voicemail, everything changed, even though he only “half” meant it. Up until the time Jonathan Martin released that recording, the going reaction to his allegations of harassment and abuse by Richie Incognito was that was just the way things were in the NFL, that the process of breaking a person down, of stripping away any semblance of dignity from a person except for the kind prescribed to him by the higher-ups was a natural, downright moral process. And yet, when it came out that this process took on a racist tone, suddenly it was unacceptable. But what did that word really change? Are we supposed to believe that an institution that systematically destroys black bodies and brains, an institution that makes those people forsake all other pursuits in their life for a career that lasts an average of 3.5 years all for the profit of 32 white-owned franchises is somehow not racist? The point of this process of harassment and abuse is to make sure that no individual feels he is bigger than the team, than the institution, that Jonathan Martin is not here to play a game or engage in some process of self-actualization through football, he is here to submit. When traditional methods failed, more unsavory methods proved necessary. The about-face the NFL took upon the revelation was because that word raised questions about the nature of socialization in the NFL, and the institution itself, that it would rather not deal with, especially as it fights for its existence. Indeed, the insecurity exhibited by the NFL is reflexive of the insecurity society exhibits for exactly the same reason: the word “nigger” and all its various vowel-ending forms is a rather reliable barometer for racism in America. Revisionist hip-hop history would like you to believe otherwise, but N.W.A. was a political project. Indeed, a group named Niggaz With Attitude could only ever be such. At that time, such a public self-identification with that word was still unheard-of. On “Niggaz4Life,” they explain their rationale. Per MC Ren: “Why do I call myself a nigga you ask me?/Well it's because motherfuckers wanna blast me/And run me outta my neighborhood/And label me as a dope dealer yo, and say that I'm no good” Dr. Dre chimes in with “Why do I call myself a nigga you ask me?/I guess it's just the way shit has to be/Back when I was young gettin a job was murder/Fuck flippin burgers, cause I deserve a Nine-to-five I can be proud of, that I can speak loud of.” MC Ren adds another ingredient into the pot, “Why do I call myself a nigga you ask me?/Because police always wanna harass me,” before bringing it home at the end “I call myself a nigga cause my skin won't lighten.” Though the term is inherently racial, it is the material economic and social reality of life in Compton, plus ever-present police harassment that cause MC Ren and Dr. Dre to adopt the word, and then conclude that these phenomena are products of institutional racism in order to accept that this word is part of their essential identity (“cause my skin won't lighten”). But, importantly, it is the manifestations of institutional racism that prompt the identification with this word in the first place. On a personal level, I can relate. Growing up around white liberals, I was mostly in denial about my black identity, and so naturally, using that word was unthinkable, literally. In late adolescence though, as my awareness of racism grew along with my acceptance of my whole self, it began to creep into my internal monologue, mostly along the lines of “is these niggaz serious?” I still generally refrain from saying it, mostly out of habit and because saying “Negro please” is much more satisfying, but every time I read a news report about an unarmed black man being shot for (insert quotidian activity here), its use becomes more normalized to me. Indeed, there is no protocol as to when it is used (except for white people, who still can't say it). Its use is a daily dance among black people, a complex algorithm of various cosmic, economic and governmental forces to determine in this moment whether you are a brother, a fellow human being, or a nigga. This is why it is an effective barometer. Nobody calls him/her/self a nigger/a that doesn't feel like one. This inconvenient truth is rather upsetting to the black bourgeois elite, who have predicated their entire self-worth on the hope that there is a different answer to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz's question “What does the white man call a black man with a PhD.?” The NAACP seriously held a funeral for the word in 2007, but in 2013, Trinidad James has a music career (don't believe me, just watch). But who in all honesty could really be surprised by the word's sudden ascendance in the late 80's/early 90's? At a time in which the bottom fell out of any and all governmental movement towards racial justice, a time in which trickle-down economics and the dismantling of the welfare state was the new black, a time in which the CIA negligently if not outright sadistically allowed the crack epidemic to take place, a time in which the mainstream left decided to adopt a Coca-Cola style colorblind approach to ending racism? My point is this: the word “nigga” is far from a term of affection, a word reclaimed by the black community in order to neutralize it. The word still means what it always has, and if you want to get rid of it, inasmuch as it is possible to get rid of any word, you have to get rid of the realities that lead people to identify with it in the first place. The stupidity of viewing the white male is the universal subject. The degree to which the word “nigga” has achieve global ascendance and transcendence is the degree to which most people in this world are on the ass end of an oppressive system. And truly, as much as I hate to admit it, there is a self-fulfilling prophesy at play here. If whole swaths of people view themselves as nothing more than a product of a racist system, then we begin to view that system as intractable, and we begin to view those people as beyond help. But even though the word “nigga” is borne out and reflexive of ugliness, there is still a beautiful sense of affirmation to it, a rejection of the Michael Jackson phenomenon, wherein a person is so ashamed of his blackness he tries to bleach it out of him. It is an affirmation of your identity, even if that identity was created for the specific purpose of enslaving you. And it is this stubborn, guileful self-affirmation that helps explain its global transcendence. Because, for most people in most of the world, life is still a struggle under the heel of some form of system of oppression. The ability to live that shamelessness with a certain amount of swag is an enticing prospect. But that swag is still a consolation prize. Sure Jonathan Martin could have leaned in and asserted himself as the realest half-nigga on the Miami Dolphins, but dignity is still preferable, and dignity is not what that word bestows. Address all hate mail to

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