The N-Word

First impressions aren’t always right. But sometimes they are.

The white kid liked to talk a lot. He seemed like the type who let his mouth get him in trouble from time to time.

The black kid was quiet. He never said much but when he did it was light-hearted. He came across as easy-going.

They were talking about sports. That’s what they always talked about. I was just an observer. The old man with nothing to say, just analyzing how the times have changed in the twenty years since I was their age. And boy, the times have really changed.

The black kid shared his opinion on something sports related. I don’t even remember what he said.

But I remember what the white kid said in response.

He called his friend the N-word.

I immediately thought back to my high school days. I didn’t grow up in 1960s Selma, Alabama. I grew up in 1990s Clayton County, Georgia. My school was racially diverse. Racial tension wasn’t overbearing but it was there.

Just before I graduated, Spike Lee released Malcolm X. He had an excellent marketing plan. Everywhere I looked there was a black t-shirt or hat with a giant white X on it. In response, a few white people started wearing shirts featuring the confederate flag and the phrase, “You’ve got your X, I’ve got mine.” You can imagine what that did for race relations in the community.

The N-word was off limits. If a black person said it, a teacher came from nowhere to correct the student. If a white person said it, there was going to be even more trouble. As far as I can remember, there was no such thing as a white person using the word in good nature towards a black person. Some jokes seem funny from the perspective of the deliverer and downright threatening to the recipient. This word was the perfect example.

So I braced myself a few months ago when I heard the fast talking white kid use that word towards his black teammate. It was looking as if my first impression about his mouth getting him in trouble was about to be proven true.

But the black kid just stood there. Not like one would stand there while turning the other cheek. Not in shock, as in, “What did you just call me?” He just stood there. Like if I called you dude or man. It meant nothing to him.

What happened? Don’t get me wrong. I was glad that there was no fight. But was I really that old? Had that word suddenly become okay?

A few weeks later news broke of the bizarre relationship between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Incongnito, white, sent Martin, black, somewhere around 12.9 billion text messages. And he called Martin the N-word.

Surely this was it for Incognito. I remembered former Braves pitcher John Rocker and his comments that helped to bring his career to a quick end. Incognito’s offenses seemed much worse than Rocker’s. But apparently they weren’t. Either that or times have just changed.

We were later informed that there was a different code in locker rooms. That you could say and do things in there that you couldn’t get away with in regular society. That the N-word didn’t really mean anything. As if that weren’t enough, earlier this week, Charles Barkley defended the Clippers’ Matt Barnes use of the word on social media saying, “white America doesn’t get to dictate” how he talks to his friends.

Barkley confessed that he uses the N-word all the time and that his white friends use it around him. But he went on to say that white people need to be careful that they don’t use the word around the wrong person.

So even for those who tell us that the N-word is no big deal, it’s a big deal.

It turns out that James was really onto something.

So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! James 3:5 (ESV)

Maybe times have changed. But that doesn’t change the past. A past where the N-word was used as the cruelest of insults. That may be a past that has been forgotten by today’s pro athletes and teenagers. But it is not forgotten by all.

My sons haven’t heard the N-word yet. One day they will. Everyday my wife asks them if they’ve heard any strange words. At some point, they’ll come to us with this one.

And we’ll tell them that the N-word is a curse word. That it’s a tiny word that can start a great fire.

As they grow, my boys will likely spend a fair amount of time in locker rooms. You know, those places where rules are suspended. My hope for them is that they learn that the impact left by a word, like a fire, doesn’t know geographical boundaries. I’m working to train them so that they will remember that conviction, character, love and respect don’t go on hiatus when you walk into a locker room.

I don’t care if Lil’ Wayne and Charles Barkley use the N-word. I’m glad that they have the privilege.

But the kids who are growing up today had better take notice. Their black friend may not mind being called the N-word by a white teammate. But their black friends’ father just might. Chances are, he’s had it thrown in his direction before and with all the wrong intentions. So when he hears it used on his son, he just might decide to do something about it. Who could blame him?

One little word.

No big deal to some.

But painfully offensive to others.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire.