The Richie Incognito Defense: Can You Be An “Honorary Black”?

What we're seeing (aside from bullying) is the messy process of the races coming closer together, not racism

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Charlie Ans / Splash News / Corbis

Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito on Nov. 4, 2013.

I’m glad Jonathan Martin quit the Miami Dolphins after Richie Incognito’s barbaric barrage of bullying voice mails and tweets. I’m glad Incognito has been suspended. But I can’t join the chorus calling him a racist.

(MORE: Football Player’s Lawyer Says He Was Bullied, Harassed)

Incognito left voicemails to Martin laced with such lines as the fact that he wanted to “shit in your fucking mouth” and slap Martin’s mother. This is the kind of thing that gives sports, not to mention men, a bad name. If Incognito and his teammates think of it as harmless hazing, they need to get past it. Athletes don’t get a pass on being uncivilized morons.

But to many, the most interesting thing about this incident is that Incognito’s trash talk included calling Martin, who is biracial, a “half nigger piece of shit.” Incognito is reported to have used the N-word in other incidents as well.

But wait: Martin and Incognito’s teammates Mike Pouncey and Mike Wallace don’t think Incognito is a racist—and they are black themselves. To them, Incognito was using the N-word in the same way as they would – as a vulgar but ultimately affectionate in-group term. Officially, Americans are taught that the N-word can only have this meaning when blacks use it – when whites use it, it is a slur. However, that is an increasingly hard rule to police, because it touches on a question as to what “black” is in 2013.

An unnamed teammate has said that on the Dolphins, Incognito has been considered an “honorary black” person. That statement reflects a social transformation currently happening in America, the browning of a once Wonder-Bread culture. Increasing numbers of white and other non-black young people these days identify with black culture in an honest, organic way.

Some think of this as some kind of cynical or naïve mimcry, associated with what in the nineties were called “wiggers.” But like that term, these thinkers are behind the times. The young white guy today who lives for hiphop, sounds almost black in his casual speech, and greets, walks, and dresses in what used to be an exclusively “hood” style is not a modern Al Jolson – he wouldn’t know any other way to be. Dzhokar Tsarnaev’s tweets sounded like they could have come from Jay-Z, who he actually quoted. As the unnamed Dolphin player, who we can assume is black, says, “Being a black guy, being a brother is more than just about skin color. It’s about how you carry yourself. How you play. Where you come from.What you’ve experienced. A lot of things.”

Now, according to the old script, at this point someone should object that white people can’t be meaningfully “black” because their skin color hasn’t given them the discriminatory experiences of actual black people. But this is based on a very narrow sense of what belonging to a race or a culture means. A racial or cultural identity cannot solely be based on what another group thinks of you. A culture is a complex of traits—speech, recreation, food, moral values, religion—not whether or not you get profiled.

In the long view, what we are seeing is the messy process of the races coming together culturally, despite nasty setbacks such as Trayvon Martin’s death and indications that President Obama’s race plays a part in Republican’s animus towards him. Black America is not in danger of cultural eclipse by a vanilla mainstream. America gets culturally blacker every year.

But this also means that increasing numbers of young white men are going to feel comfortable using the N-word in the same trash-talking way that black men use it, and when called on it, will object that they are culturally “black” themselves. They will not be crazy in that self-assessment, and as such, we’re in for a bumpy ride.