Thursday night, Charles Barkley went on Inside the NBA and delivered a commentary about the use of “nigger” in locker rooms. Anyone who was expecting something along the lines of what Shannon Sharpe presented on The NFL Today on Sunday — an emotional appeal for black athletes to intervene and prevent the casual use of degrading racial slurs — doesn’t know Barkley. Instead he delivered a baffling sermon against, well, what, exactly? Political correctness? Video of the whole segment is embedded below, but I’ll cut to the salient points.
Barkley: “I’m a black man. I use the n-word. I’m going to continue to use the n-word with my black friends, with my white friends, they are my friends. In the locker room and when I’m with my friends, we use racial slurs. … What I do with my black friends is not up to white America to dictate to me, what’s appropriate and inappropriate…”
Ernie Johnson: “I don’t think anybody right now is telling you, Charles, what you can do with your friends.”
Barkley: “No, no, Ernie, I have been watching TV for the last few months, going back to Paula Deen, going to Incognito, to Martin. White people, first of all, white reporters — they don’t have the courage to go to the locker room. That’s why they’re reporters. What we say in the locker room should always stay in the locker room. I might add that, also. But the language we use sometimes is homophobic, sometimes racist or sexist. We do that when we’re joking with our teammates. It is nothing personal. But this national debate that’s going on right now makes me uncomfortable, regular people try to act like they have the courage, or the — to play pro sports. They don’t have that. … White America don’t get to dictate how me and Shaq talk to each other. And they have been trying to infiltrate themselves, saying, ‘Well, you guys use it, it’s in rap music.’ No, no, no. That’s not the same.”
And scraaaatch. Barkley here conflates two opposing caucuses: the white people on television who say that “nigger” is demeaning and shouldn’t be used casually, and the white people on television who say that they, too, should be able to say “nigger,” so long as others can. (This latter class, much smaller than the first, consists primarily of trolls and racists.) The factions have nothing to do with one other, except for that each comprises white people on television who are, generally speaking, talking about the same issue. But presumably Barkley can tell the difference, as anyone else could distinguish between Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson, or Guy Fieri and Jacques Pepin.
Barkley merges the factions, it seems, out of convenience and selfishness. He reasons, the argument against “nigger” is culturally imperialist — white people, no, white journalists, telling black people what to do, and that’s appalling — so how could they possibly be right? ESPN’s Rick Reilly tried to do the same thing with “Redskins,” last month. Barkley and Reilly chose to ignore the objections of blacks and American Indians, respectively, to make the story about political correctness, so that it might fit the broader, more palatable story of needless silencing.
But the silencing isn’t needless. Throw whatever I-know-the-locker-room-and-you-don’t argument you’d like at it — the language Richie Incognito used wounded Jonathan Martin. It would have wounded Shannon Sharpe, and countless others. To chance others’ pain and degradation to save yourself from having to come up with new jokes? Barkley was never much for defense during his playing days, but this might be his worst yet.