With great power comes great responsibility.
Those powerful words once uttered by Spider-Man reach just about all corners of life— an NFL locker room is clearly within those confines. As the details of the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin situation unceremoniously continue to trickle in, the topic of discussion has transformed over the course of the last week.
Hazing, bullying, mental health issues, conduct in the workplace, locker room etiquette and the pro athlete double standard have all taken center stage. Then the discussion — like seemingly all controversial discussions — turned to race. When news broke that Incognito had left threatening voicemails on Martin’s phone, which included the Caucasian lineman calling the biracial (black and white) Martin a “half-nigger”, the story suddenly took on an entirely different context.
Opinions on this story have landed on every point on the spectrum, but nobody was closer to the situation than the other players on the Miami Dolphins team, many of whom have shockingly come to the aid of the oft-malevolent Incognito. Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace was recently as quoted as saying “I know both [Martin and Incognito] personally. I like both of them. I love Richie. I think he’s a great guy. I don’t think he was out of hand. I have a lot of respect for Richie. I wish he was here.”
According to the University of Central Florida’s 2012 NFL Race and Gender Report Card, Wallace is, like roughly 70% of all NFL players, a black man. Like the vast majority of NFL players, he is also in his mid-to-late 20s. Chalk it up to a part of this new “post-racial America”, but according to the Miami Herald’s Armando Salguero, Incognito is largely viewed by many of his black teammates as an “honorary black man”. Even “blacker” than the half-black Johnathan Martin.
Stop right there.
Attempting to measure “blackness” is an exercise that is as confounding as it is foolish. On top of it being incredibly arbitrary in most instances, it will often lead to situations like this.
Sidebar: The phrase “most instances” is used because often times blackness, or a lack thereof can be inversely compared to one being a “sellout” or an “Uncle Tom”. That of course, is an entirely different conversation we’ll save for another day.
Salguero went on to report the following:
I’ve spoken to multiple people today about this and the explanation from all of them is that in the Dolphins locker room, Richie Incognito was considered a black guy. He was accepted by the black players. …
And Jonathan Martin, who is bi-racial, was not. Indeed, Martin was considered less black than Incognito.
“Richie is honarary,” one player who left the Dolphins this offseason told me today. “I don’t expect you to understand because you’re not black. But 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.”
To his credit, somewhere along the line in his personal and professional development, Richie Incognito befriended enough black people that he became extremely comfortable around them. This trait should not go completely unnoticed. Many white people work with a black person or two and have no problem with casually interacting with them on a daily basis. That’s a far cry from walking into a workplace where you, a white person, is in the gross minority and are forced to interact with your black coworkers on a daily basis.
Most white people have no idea what that’s like. Most black people learn to deal with it at an early age and the shouldering of this responsibility is required to become as natural as breathing.
Giving a white person the distinction of being an “honorary black person” — also synonymous with receiving a “hood pass” or a “ghetto pass” — is a longstanding running joke within the black community (Bill Clinton immediately comes to mind). In so doing, it’s easy to understand how a white person who has received this title could think they could use words like “nigger” without any retribution. Arguably the most polarizing word in the English language, its usage is generally seen as taboo for whites. Hence, many white people cannot resist the urge of wanting to use the word or the conversation surrounding it. We’ll just call desire for forbidden fruit human nature.
“Why can black people say it but white people can’t?” That question often posed by white people in race based conversations is not an uncommon one. A natural response that comes to mind is, “Why do you want to say it so badly?”
Still, the confusion over who can say it and who can’t is understandable, especially considering there’s a large segment of the black population that finds its usage by anyone to be completely reprehensible, while others seem to use it by the hour. The “hood pass” only further complicates this matter.
The simple solution for white people is to avoid usage of the N word in any and all circumstances. Even if it can be referenced in intelligent conversations about racism, why even roll those dice? There will always be a segment of the black community who will never accept white people saying that word. And recent history tells us it never ends well when they do.
The “hood pass” is meant to be a compliment— a term of endearment that should allow for people from different cultural backgrounds to band together. But this label only adds pressure to its recipient. It can give white people the unnecessary burden of having to live up to the moniker, rather than leaving them to their own devices. It can also provide the white recipient with the false confidence that they can say and do anything when in the company of any black person.
It needs to be understood that this is not the case for white people (or anyone for that matter). What you say and do when around your circle of black friends will not translate to all black people because (get this) not all black people are the same! And there is no universal method to appealing to all black people. Just because the one black guy you work with often has to serve as the representation for all things “black”, doesn’t mean it goes the other way.
What’s really hard to comprehend though, is why some black people feel it’s necessary to put that type of stress on their white friends? Personally, I have many white friends, several of whom are cognizant of or sensitive to much of the issues that face the African-American community. Never have I called any of them “an honorary black person”. They’re simply white people that are more culturally competent than most. And I love them for it.
As for the Dolphins, this story has taken on a life of its own and could easily crumble a team that through nine weeks is still very much in the playoff picture. The Miami coaching staff reportedly wanted to “toughen up” Jonathan Martin. Naturally, they recruited Incognito for the job— a guy who besides being a slightly above average offensive lineman has been a malcontent for his entire eight-year career. When Martin responded negatively to the ordered hazing, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland allegedly advised Martin to fade Incognito.
Sidebar: Because a black man punching a white man at work will always work out well for the black man. I know the culture inside an NFL locker room is a little bit different, but c’mon now.
Instead, Martin conducted himself like an adult and decided to walk away from the team. He later checked himself into the hospital for mental and emotional distress. Meanwhile, after doing a complete 180 on their stance, the Dolphins suspended Incognito indefinitely. He’s likely played his last game with the team.
In the wake of the Riley Cooper incident from this summer, we were able to see what real contrition looks like. We’ve yet to see this from Richie Incognito.
— Richie incognito (@68INCOGNITO) November 3, 2013
I do not believe Richie Incognito is your Merriam Webster’s “racist”, but he clearly has a lot of growing up to do, as does the Miami Dolphins organization. And it’s hard to escape the “what if” scenario of Incognito being black and harassing a white teammate to the point of threatening to kill him and harm his mother, all in the name of “tough love”.
What we’re left with are two former friends that will likely struggle to find work in the NFL ever again.
I guess even with a pass, the hood is a dangerous place.