In the movie White Men Can’t Jump, a white man and a black man with a knife have a brief but heated conversation about race.
White man: Hey, who are you calling a goofy white [guy who has sex with mothers]?
Black man with a knife: You, you goofy white [guy who has sex with mothers]!
The white man, despite this affront, is less concerned about being insulted than he is about getting stabbed. Lesson: Words hurt, but not as much as knives do.
The recent imbroglio over Riley Cooper has reaffirmed this point. Cooper, a (white) wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, became famous and infamous late last month for having said, after an altercation with a black security guard at a Kenny Chesney concert, the N-word. More specifically, he said, “I will jump that fence and fight every [N-word] here, bro.”
To no one’s surprise, everyone agreed. Even the mayor of Philadelphia chimed in, calling his remarks “repugnant, insensitive and ignorant.” He wasn’t referring to Cooper’s words in toto but rather to his use of the N-word in particular. (Thought experiment: What if, instead of using the N-word, Cooper had said, “I will jump that fence and fight every African-American here, bro”?)
Eagles owner Jeffrey Laurie said, “His words may have been directed at one person, but they hurt everyone.” The idea, widely promulgated in the press, is that everyone is supposed to feel everyone else’s pain, so long as the pain isn’t physical. As an act of contrition, Cooper said he knew “how many people I’ve hurt, how many families I’ve hurt, how many kids I’ve hurt.” In the interest of precision, one should point out that, whether or not Cooper did indeed “hurt everyone,” he did not commit genocide, fratricide, homicide or infanticide. He hurt people’s feelings, not their bodies.
But most of all, he hurt himself. Words, like knives, can cut both ways, hurting not only feelings but also reputations and careers. One ESPN commentator said that Cooper showed “his true colors” — white presumably foremost among them — when he “unleashed” the N-word “out of the bottom of his heart.”
Rather than sending Cooper to a cardiologist, the Eagles sent him to sensitivity training, the purpose of which, according to a statement released by the team, was “to help him fully understand the impact of his words and actions.” The evidence, however, suggests that Cooper understood the impact of his words even before his four days of sensitivity training. There were no reports of his having blurted out racial epithets in the past, around his teammates or to anyone else. That he said this particular one at a country music concert — rather than at, say, a Jay-Z concert — suggests he had at least a vague idea of the word’s impact.
Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy, who has written a book on the subject, has called the N-word “America’s paradigmatic ethnic slur.” While it is doubtful that Cooper has read Kennedy’s book or knows what “paradigmatic” means, he surely knows by now that certain words have serious consequences, both for those who hear them and for those who say them.
What else has he learned? He has learned that marginally famous people can become infamous overnight; to watch what he says, not because he might say something insensitive but because he might say it to someone who is recording him; that professional athletes need sensitivity trainers as well as personal trainers; that political correctitude is a prerequisite for job security; and, lastly, that he, as a white man, can’t jump — to race-based conclusions.