Mitch Albom and the N-Word

This morning’s Detroit Free Press has an interesting article from Mitch Albom, “Examining the NFL’s Debate for Penalties for N-Word.” In the article, Mitch writes of his discomfort with the NFL’s new rule fining the on-field use of the N-word, while decrying any use of the N-word.

There’s lot of places to go with this, but let me address two consecutive sentences in Mitch’s article:

“Look. I don’t shake the rafters of this idea and find sociological ghosts of white supremacy. I see a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry worried about its image.”

What are the unspoken assumptions within those two sentences?

1.  White supremacy is a thing of the our past- a ghost.

2.  The present, multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry has no vestiges of white supremacy, particularly as a means of protecting its image within a culture of whiteness.

3.  There are no connections between assumptions 1 and 2 above.

Let me start with Mitch’s assumption that “white supremacy” is a thing of the past.  I do recognize that this can be loaded language, and that it is too often understood as being synonymous with “white racist.”  However, we live in a culture that uses a dominant “white racial frame,” a frame that, as Joe Feagin writes, “…has been a ‘master frame,’ a dominant framing that provides a generic meaning system for the racialized society that became the United States.”  This is the frame that most whites, and many people of color, use to view our culture and thus is the standpoint from which judgments are made.  It’s clearly a frame of white privilege, and much of this white privilege is unconscious.  Thus the frame of “whiteness” becomes the norm for what is judged as right or wrong, and what is worthy of merit.  We live in a society where a huge number of people of color have their voting rights disenfranchised through a politics of imposed privilege , or the New Jim Crow .  We live in a society that justifies the murder of black men and children through the twisted logic of stand your ground.  I could go on and on, but this is enough to call into question the idea that white supremacy is something we have overcome. As such, I am not saying that we have a culture dominated by individual white racism, but we undeniably have a culture that systematically works to privilege whiteness.

What is “normal”?  Whiteness. What does success mean?  Whiteness. Who decides?  People who have power based on whiteness.  These are the assumptions that are hidden by the privilege Mitch Albom represents.

What we have is a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry trying to protect its image, an image necessarily grounded in whiteness.  (Duly note the recent uproar over Richard Sherman.)

The problem with Mitch is that his article reaffirms the standards of white supremacy.  In writing of white supremacy and college admissions, David Leonard writes, “Whiteness is what is meritorious and everything else is secondary.  The rules and the standards must reflect and reaffirm the spots reserved for white students. ”  The same concerns over “merit” as determined by whiteness occurs in all categories of our culture, including language and sports.  Very simply, Albom is making a judgement on the merit of language from the perspective of his white privilege while obscuring the existence of white privilege.

The fundamental question is not about the merit and ownership of the N-word, but just who gets to determine the merit of anything?  And who has voice in such determination?

Who decides?

I vote against Mitch.


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