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Sunday, Sep 21, 2014
South Tampa News

O’Neill: In racial N-game, context counts

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BY JOE O’NEILL

Special correspondent

No, you can’t make this stuff up. Once again.

The other day, Delano Stewart, 78, one of Tampa’s most iconic African-Americans, was weighing in with a critique in his capacity as the city’s legal adviser to the Civil Service Board. The issue was a fired parks department employee who is black. He rhetorically wondered if she received equal treatment and drew an analogy to make his point. Fair enough.

The analogy, however, became the story. Not because it effectively made his point — arguably, it didn’t — but because of the language he used. No longer fair enough.

Stewart cited the case last year of a Philadelphia Eagles player who notoriously used what we’ve come to call the “n-word.” The player, Riley Cooper, is white. He said it in a boozy, flippant fashion in a public forum and was caught on a cell phone. Societal abuse rained down and Cooper apologized profusely and (the former Clearwater Central Catholic and University of Florida grad) was re-instated. He later received a contract extension.

But in the retelling, Stewart quoted Cooper literally. As in “n-----.” Oops.

Stewart went on to contrast the Cooper incident with what happened recently to the Eagles’ DeSean Jackson, who is black. The Eagles cut the All-Pro wide receiver after reports of California gang ties. Stewart said he was “fired.” And, no, those reports were never conclusively proven.

But context, of course, matters. It matters with the Cooper-Jackson analogy; it matters with “n-word” use.

Cooper is a white guy in a predominantly black league. He’s a good player, but you can bet that the Philly brothers vouched for him before he was hired back. Plus, they have him outnumbered.

Jackson, even in a league with no dearth of prima donnas, was well-known as a boorish punk, however talented. A lot had preceded press accounts of gang-affiliation rumors. He had to have been perceived as that bad a person, because he was that good a player. So be it. Think Mike Williams of the Bucs or Elijah Dukes of the Rays. That’s hardly Cooper.

As for Stewart, his direct Cooper quote prompted a debate. Not all Civil Service Board members approved of him filling in the n-blanks. Mayor Bob Buckhorn had to weigh in, reminding everyone that, indeed, “context matters.” An “n-word” slur, for example, would be cause for termination for city personnel. Stewart wasn’t slurring anyone. Obviously.

But here’s what most telling about this totally unnecessary flap.

We all get the connotation of — and the reaction to — “slurs.” They’re mean-spirited and meant to hurt. We know ‘em when we hear ‘em.

But as a society, we still need constant reminding that context counts? We still need reminding that common sense applies as well? Are we still so stunted in our societal growth — such that we give hypersensitivity and over-reaction bad names?

Be assured, for example, that Charles Barkley isn’t pulling his fraternal punches when giving a shout-out to Shaq O’Neal. The “n,” as he has taken pains to remind us, is followed by five more letters when its use is black brother bonding agent. It’s also, alas, part of crudely popular, if hypocritical, locker room lingo as well as a hip-hop staple. Ironically, the “image”-conscious NFL is actually considering having its refs call a penalty for “n-word” use during games. As if.

So, where do we go from here?

Acknowledge reality, for openers. Yes, there’s a racial double standard. Its roots are this country’s — and this word’s — history. Regardless, there’s still a premium on sensitivity.

But no etymological and racial history can cancel common sense and context. We don’t need to be enslaved by political correctness.

Delano Stewart should be able to quote Riley Cooper verbatim without any adult being taken aback or offended. Barkley and O’Neal should be able to call each other whatever names they want.

And Joseph Conrad-enamored English professors ought to be able to assign “Nigger of the Narcissus” without backlash or censorship.

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