Dwonna Know What I Think?”
A social/lifestyle advice and commentary column by guest contributor Dr. Dwonna Naomi Goldstone. Dr. Goldstone is a Professor of English and Coordinator of the African American Studies Minor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Dear “Dwonna Know What I Think?
Do you have any comments about the Riley Cooper “gaffe”?
Dear “Titans Fan”:
Here is a lengthy response with some background information for those who are not familiar with what happened at the end of July:
On June 9, a cellphone camera captured Riley Cooper—a white wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles—yelling at a black security guard and threatening to jump a fence to “fight every Nigger here” at a Kenny Chesney concert at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
After the video surfaced last month, Cooper stood before the Philadelphia media and said that he was “extremely embarrassed,” “extremely hurt,” and “extremely sorry for [his] actions.” “This is the lowest of the lows,” Cooper said. “This is not the type of person I want to be portrayed as. This isn’t the type of person I am. I’m extremely sorry,” he continued. However, as sports writer Jason Whitlock wrote, Cooper didn’t “threaten to fight every n****r because there’s no bigotry in his heart and mind. He did it because he has failed to deal with whom he really is.” To help him “deal with whom he really is,” the Philadelphia Eagles fined Cooper (the amount has not been released), and the organization has ordered him to attend counseling and sensitivity training.
Let me be perfectly clear about this—Riley Cooper does not need counseling, nor does he need sensitivity training. This is not a mental health issue; it is a character issue. Although Riley Cooper said that he was angry at how the black security guard was treating him and his friends, Cooper spewed the word “Nigger” as a weapon; it was as if Cooper wanted to remind that black security guard of his “place” at that Kenny Chesney concert in particular and in white America in general. Cooper also blamed what happened in part on the fact that he had been drinking. As my former student Blake Haney says, “Drunk words are often just sober thoughts.” Alcohol does not make a man do or say what he does not already want to do or say; it simply gives him courage (hence the nickname “liquid courage”). Alcohol also makes it more difficult for a person’s sober conscience to talk him or her out of the foolishness in which he or she is about to partake.
Eagles quarterback Michael Vick has said that he has forgiven Cooper, though Vick kind of has to forgive him given his own background with dog fighting and sadistically killing dogs who did not fight well enough for his sick operation. Other Eagles players, however, have been less forgiving. Running back LeSean McCoy said that he would “still show great effort” when it came to blocking for Cooper but that “on a friendship level and as a person—I can’t really respect somebody like that… There are some things that are going to be hard to work with, to be honest.” An anonymous player said that the Eagles’ coaches were saying that the players should be thinking “team first,” but was Riley Cooper “thinking about the team when he said that?” More than half of the Eagles football team is black, and I imagine that in a city like Philadelphia, at least half of the staff (from the assistant coaches down to the custodians) is black. Did Cooper think about those black faces when he was with his white buddies and thinking about “fighting every Nigger” at that Kenny Chesney concert?
Skip Bayless, the oftentimes contentious and contrarian co-star of the ESPN show First Take, said that the Philadelphia Eagles should have cut Riley Cooper from the team immediately after the story broke. “Riley Cooper crossed a line you just can’t uncross,” Bayless argued on last Friday’s show. “You can’t apologize your way out of this. You can’t go to sensitivity training to quickly change what’s in a man’s heart.” Stephen A. Smith respectfully disagreed with Bayless, arguing that many of us work with people we do not like and that the other Eagles players have a responsibility to just do their jobs on the field without regard to what Cooper said or whether or not they like the man. The right answer is somewhere in between. Just like Vick was given another chance to play in the NFL, Cooper should be given another chance, too, but it does not mean that we have to believe Cooper when he says that this is no indication of the “kind of person he is.” As my father used to say to me when I was a kid, we are the sum total of what we do and what we say; always choose to do and say the right things and you won’t have to spend much time apologizing to people. Notice, too, that Cooper did not apologize until the video became public almost six weeks later; an apology after being caught is kind of a self-serving—and an empty—apology.
This brings me to my final point. One of my favorite ESPN radio personalities has argued that the media was, in some ways, making too much of the Riley Cooper “gaffe” because, well, black people use the “N-word, too.” Yes, SOME black people use the word casually, and they justify its use by saying that it is a term of endearment. In fact, some of my Austin Peay students have told me that there is a difference between “Nigger” (that’s hateful, they say) and “Nigga” (which is spoken between friends). However, when I point out to these students that they probably would not see “Nigga” as a term of endearment if it was spewed from the mouth of a white man in Wrangler jeans driving a pickup truck with a gun rack, they often concede my point. Yet, they still refuse to stop using either version of the word amongst themselves while condemning the Paula Deens of the world for using it. Still, I have always found the “well black people use the word Nigger” argument to be both flawed and disingenuous. The fact is that most black people never utter the word, and many of us abhor its use regardless of the color of the speaker. In fact, most of us are like Oprah Winfrey—we won’t pal around with people who use that word around us.
What Riley Cooper’s “gaffe” really reveals is that racism is still alive and well even in this “post-racial” Barack Obama society and that we all need to do better and be better.
About the Author: Dr. Dwonna Naomi Goldstone was born in Moline, Illinois, home of the John Deere Tractor. She graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in American Studies and a minor in African American Studies and from Brown University with an M.A.T. in secondary English education. In May 2001 she graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with her PhD in American Studies and began teaching at Austin Peay in August. Dr. Goldstone is the author of Integrating the Forty Acres: The Fifty-Year Struggle for Racial Equality at the University of Texas (University of Georgia Press 2006), which won the Coral H. Tulis Memorial Prize for the best book on Texas history. She has also published several articles, including “An African American Woman Reflects on What 9/11 Meant for African Americans, and Herself,” “Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina” and “Stirring Up Trouble: Teaching Race at a Southern Liberal Arts University.” She lives in Nashville with her four unruly dogs—Satchel Paige, Butterfly McQueen, Charlie Parker, and Lena Horne.
She can be reached at email@example.com.