Saturday, August 3, 2013

Two thoughtful responses to my Riley Cooper blog on race

I received a number of comments about my blog of Thursday in which I suggested the Eagles should have suspended wide-out receiver Riley Cooper after he was exposed on a YouTube video using a an insensitive racial slur.

While the media uproar surrounding Cooper's remark still rages, I thought I would post two very thought responses to my blog. The first one is from my sister, Judy, who teaches theater at a state university in California. She brings a fresh perspective to the controversy because she sees the world through the lens of her education in theatrical. The second respondent, whose remarks appear underneath my sister's, wished to remain anonymous.    

From my sister, Judy:
I read your blog. Nicely done. Chuck, it seems that your reaction is historically based and a bit more theoretical, while your friend's response is more experiential - both entirely valid perspectives. I completely agree that CONTEXT is key here, and both of you make good arguments for the uses of context in a cultural and historical framework.
Here's my take from a performance theory perspective:
What I see as the biggest issue in Cooper's threat (and it WAS a threat) is his lack of awareness of his own privileged position as: a) a white man, and b) a superstar athlete.  To me, he is performing a role: a hyper masculinized bully.  He is clearly using his power (physical, cultural, racial) to get his way. He uses the derogatory term "nigger" to re-claim his status as superior/white man, and in doing so he is harkening upon our own cultural understanding of the term nigger.  His comments awaken in us (his audience) a multitude of responses depending on our own experiences with race, and possibly our level of education. His choice of words had an intention behind them. I'm guessing he was trying to humiliate his opponent, and win over some like-minded by-standers.  He used a term that we all know - that we all have a position on - for a very good reason, even if that "reason" was made in a split second.

Could we say that he was unaware of the power of his performance? Could we say that he learned these things in a locker room? Sure. But the bottom line is that as a white man he possess invisible privileges that he should be aware of. He also possesses a substantive amount of economic and social capital - far beyond that of the security guard he's addressing.  One might say - and this is where compassion comes in -  that he doesn't KNOW himself very well. Why? Because he hasn't been taught that whiteness is privilege. Why hasn't he been taught this? Because it is a very, very uncomfortable thing for us to examine given the complexity of race, class and gender in our country. There's always an experience, a "truth", that will eclipse the larger historical and social framework.
I think that we, as a society, create these performances. I think that we cast characters and ask them to perform roles, like the hyper-masculinized athlete/hero. We ask people to be losers or winners, to stay uneducated, to sexualize their own bodies, etc. So when something like this happens it reminds us that we need to ask for something different.

And this is the second thoughtful response, from an acquaintance who works in city services for the city of Philadelphia:
I read your blog post, and to a certain extent, I agree. But I take issue with a few things, not within the post itself; rather with cultural aspects surrounding "the N word" and how it effects society at large.

First let me state: words have power. The pen is mightier than the sword. That said, words only have as much power over you as you allow: in my case, when I was in 1st to 8th grade, the other kids called me 'contaminated' due to a physical defect I was born with. That hurt me greatly, and I still cringe when I hear it. But I don't let it rule my life; I've overcome the low self esteem that hurt caused me. I understand that my struggle is comparatively weak versus what that of the average African American encounters, but as much as I will never understand their struggle, they cannot understand mine.

Second: I take issue with the blanket statement that any other person that is not African American can ever utter the N word. It largely depends on context. Yes, it can be a hateful word; that said, it can be a term of endearment: I have, since I was 19, black friends that call me 'niggah' and are OK with me calling them 'niggah'.  So, it depends on context.

While I found Cooper's words to be hateful, ignorant and inappropriate in their context (white guy talking to black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, where presumably 99% of the attendees were white) I also have to consider his locker room experiences, in which I can only presume that 'niggah' is tossed about with abandon. So, as an NFL player, I really can't blame him for having that word in his vocabulary, inasmuch as I wouldn't blame Eminem for having it in his vocabulary as a rapper. It comes with the territory.

Where I work, the employee base is 30% white, black and hispanic, the remaining percentage asian. If I got offended every time I heard the slightest 'slur', for example, when two hispanics, speaking in Spanish, toss out a 'blanco y negro' (whites and blacks) in the elevator, I'd never get along with anyone. We're all people at work; we understand we come from different backgrounds, and we all know that part of our job is to represent our various communities. So long as there is a balance, it works. In other words: we're not really racist, but each person has a neighborhood agenda to promote. It is what it is, and we accept that.

Finally, while I realize that the scars of 400 years of slavery and another 100 years of Jim Crow institutionalized oppression are not healed,  I cannot lay blame entirely on society for the failures of the individual.

I don't know if you are aware of this, but, culturally, in the African American urban community, "Acting White"--studying, attending school, having a job, being responsible--is culturally frowned upon.  Furthermore, dependence on the 'system', i.e. public housing, food stamps, welfare, utility allowances etc. is strongly encouraged. Not that I am against programs that help the poor, but I do have a hard time reconciling people that depend on the system on a lifetime basis versus those that need it for a few years in order to get through some hard times.

The "Acting White" phenomenon is what makes friends of mine, that will remain nameless, rise to Masters-level education, or their nephew, who can solve complicated mathematical equations in his head and has to hide the fact he is a leader in his schools debate team: they have/will overcome white societies racism, and the urban black societies culture of willful ignorance and dependence.

So, what has happened over the past half century +/- 20 years is a culture of entitlement has developed. People that are talented and intelligent have, largely by peer pressure, not developed to their full potential. That has nothing to do with me, you, or Riley Cooper: but, it allows that kind of racial stereotype to propagate. As a cook I worked with at B Rathbones when I was 15 answered me when I, both innocently and ignorantly asked him, "what is a nigger?" He said, "A nigger is a lazy person." That's a definition of a word that I can live with.

Finally: if what Riley Cooper uttered, drunkenly, at a concert, is so offensive, it begs the question: what about the actual names of our sports franchises? I find the term "Redskins" patently offensive; the mascots and/or logos of the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians are, without a doubt, racially based cartoons of the proud peoples that once inhabited our continent. People that our forebears came close to exterminating from the face of the planet. Hell, Braves fans do "the chop" with an accompanying/mocking cheer. Is that not at least, if not more so, as offensive as one player on one team uttering a drunken slur?

So: in closing, I think you have overreacted a bit much in calling for the dismissal of Riley Cooper. After all, he's only human. Just like the rest of us.

On Thu, Aug 1, 201

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Riley Cooper should have been axed: why the Eagles didn't do enough

Race will never stop rearing its ugly head in this country.

It's 2013, and the nation has had a mixed-race President for five years now. So, yes, we seem to be making "progress" in this divisive issue. But, as the brouhaha over Riley Cooper's insensitive and racist remark suggests, Americans continue to be bound to a terrible national heritage:  our centuries long, disgraceful, immoral appeasement with slavery. 150 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, we still deal with its fallout.

We are frequently reminded of this lesson must be taught. Slavery was a detestable part of our history. It  turned Americans into monsters. We need to collectively, finally, fess up to this unforgiveable sin and all its implications. Caucasian Americans can never use a word as  hateful and divisive as the N-word. And we need to make our children understand it is not a word they can ever utter.

I'm willing to give Cooper credit for telling the public how embarrassed he is for his insensitive remark. His public apology at the Eagles training camp today seemed sincere and I really want to believe he will learn from his mistake. The truest thing he said in his public apology yesterday was "my parents didn't raise me that way. I embarrassed them." I believed him. And I feel much worse for them than I do for him. If my child did something like this I would feel eternal shame. I bet Cooper's parents will be feeling shame for a long time and they did nothing wrong.

I was also glad to hear Cooper say that the fact he was drinking was "no excuse." But I would have preferred he didn't bring the drinking into the conversation. By mentioning it, the implication was too obvious. The alcohol "made me do it; this isn't the 'real' me." When you watch the video, and hear the vitriol with which he uses that spiteful word; when you hear the anger in his voice, it is hard to imagine alcohol was doing any of the talking. Riley doing all the talking and there is no way around this: he sounded like a racist.

Jeffrey Lurie, said to be one of the most politically liberal owners in the NFL, should have acted with a firmer hand. Liberals tend to believe in second chances, and it is possible Lurie had that thought in the back of his head when he laid only a $37,000 fine on Cooper. (This was the most he could fine a player, based on the NFL collective bargaining agreement. Cooper is only making around $680,000 this season, so his insensitive comment is bound to hurt his wallet).

But it's also possible Lurie and his new head coach, Chip Kelly, had a heart to heart talk before Lurie made his sentiments known to the media. The Eagles slotted Riley Cooper as their number one wide-out as soon as Jeremy Maclin sustained a season-ending injury. The Eagles need Cooper to play if they want to enjoy a successful season. Therein lies management's dilemma. Pro football is a billion dollar business. There's a lot at stake in showing improvement this year. Lurie wants to give local fans a reason to root.

But I think he may have misread his fan base. Many of us would have been a lot prouder if the team simply cut Cooper, just to send a message: this is Philly, the Eagles don't tolerate racism. Anyone insensitive enough to use such a spiteful word cannot play in Philadelphia.

THAT would have shown leadership. It would have told the world something important: we who live in Philadelphia care more about promoting diversity, securing civility, than we do about corporate profits. Some things are more important that winning. Like loving you're brother, no matter what his skin color is. That's what "Philadelphia", in it's original Greek term, is supposed to mean.

As an educator, I plan on using Cooper's mistake as a lesson in semantics and in history. We must remind students in our classes why the N-word is so offensive. I watched "Roots" several months ago for the first time and I was appalled at how many times I had to hear that awful word during the show. When the TV series (based on the Alex Haley novel) first came out, Americans were not as sensitive to the nuances of the word as they now are. And the series provided a necessary service to white Americans who needed to understand the context of the word and why it is so vile to black Americans. "Roots" was a graphic display of exactly what the word meant. It means a lot more than just the enslavement of dark skinned people.

A person born into slavery had no freedom. You were a thing to be owned. You were not your own person. Your master was entitled, in the legal meaning of the word, to use you however he wanted. Your children were his, too. He could punish you with impunity. He could ask you to perform any demeaning thing he wanted you to do, including having sex with him. Rape was legal and common. If you disobeyed him or objected to being raped, he could beat you. If you died from his whippings and beatings, there was no public outcry and no legal recourse to his murder. When a slaver owned you, your body was his to use. The most common word slavers used to describe the slaves they owned was the N-word. It was universally used with contempt and degradation.

We, as educators, must make students understand that any Caucasian who calls a person of color the N-word is crossing a line that is egregious and hurtful because of the original historic meaning in which the word was used. I have no problem with blacks who use the word as a term of endearment. I wish they didn't because too many uneducated people believe the word has become "acceptable" when they do. But if their use of it can somehow ease some of the hateful implications of the word, if their use of the word helps to remind the rest of us it's off limits, that's a good thing.

This is what the N-word implies: hundreds of years of bondage. Murder. Lynchings. Whippings. Rapes. The total degradation of an entire race of people. There is nothing good in it.

Riley Cooper didn't invent the word. It's been around for centuries, just like hatred itself. But if the Eagles dismissed him for the season for his insensitive remark, I can almost guarantee you this: no white player would ever risk using it again.

We would all have something to thank Cooper for then. And most of us might even be ready to forgive him. Even his black teammates.