Matt Barnes, the N-word and Reappropriation

Matt Barnes, of the Los Angeles Clippers, is being fined $25,000 for using the n-word in a Tweet.  Well, to be truthful, he’s getting fined $25,000 because most of our society has no idea what the word reappropriate means.  Even WordPress is confused by the term, giving it the old red underline. It helps to have studied sociology.  Here’s what it means:

Reappropriate, Verb


To seize and reassign.

To appropriate again.

Barnes was protecting his teammates on the court, after Serge Ibaka committed a hard foul on teammate Blake Griffin.  The ensuing fracas led to Barnes choosing to shove Ibaka, an unnecessary move that goes along with Barnes’ tough-guy persona.  Here was Barnes’ tweet (for which he’s now publicly apologized in the ever-increasing cycle of people taking to Twitter in the heat of the moment to vent, then spending the next 48 hours with PR-people, attempting to clean things up, sanitize the situation):

@Matt_Barnes22 Love my teammates like family, but I’m DONE standing up for these niggas! All this shit does is cost me money

There are a few things to discuss here.  Barnes chose to go after Ibaka with a shove instead of stand in Ibaka’s way and puff out his chest in a show of solidarity for Griffin.  Yes, he was standing up for his teammate.  Yes, he cares for his teammates like family, clearly using the word as a term of endearment to his fellow Clippers (85% of whom are African-American). The problem was the choice of using a term, the “N” word, which has been reappropriated within non-white culture.  The NBA can’t have players using the n-word on Twitter because so many Americans are still either a) unclear on what it means for a marginalized group to reappropriate a word, or b) the word has too strong a legacy of evil attached to it for reappropriation to be possible.  The politics of language is complicated, and must be contextualized.  What Barnes refused to consider was that the audience on Twitter is anybody, rather than just his friends.  Anybody can follow him–and certainly more will now just because they’ve heard about this mini-controversy.  Using the N-word as a term of endearment has always been confusing to the older generation of Americans, who heard it in their early lives as a racialized slur (even though that older generation, or 99% of them, are NOT on Twitter.)

The rap group A Tribe Called Quest spelled out the act of reappropriation on their song “Sucka N—” from the album Midnight Marauders.

See, nigga first was used back in the deep south
Fallin out between the dome of the white mans mouth
It means that we will never grow, you know the word dummy
Other niggas in the community think its crummy
But I dont, neither does the youth cause we
Em-brace adversity it goes right with the race
And being that we use it as a term of endearment
Niggas start to bug to the dome is where the fear went
Now the little shorties say it all of the time
And a whole bunch of niggas throw the word in they rhyme

It’s the neo-nigga of the nineties, c’mon

One of the aspects of modern life that Twitter highlights is the now complete separation between the post-game interview, the cliched sound-bite that the media usually gets from athletes and coaches, and the genuine thoughts of athletes when they are unfiltered.

Barnes has always been known as a great teammate, a hustle guy, an energy player, a good defender.  Doc Rivers is a big fan of the way Matt Barnes plays because he does sacrifice himself for his team.

From an ESPN LA article on Friday:

Barnes, speaking to reporters before Friday’s practice, attempted to justify use of the N-word, saying the meaning of it can be derived solely by the context in which it is used.

“The word I used is a word that’s used on the court, used in the locker room, used amongst my friends and family; it’s a regular word to me,” Barnes said. “I think my mistake was using it in a social manner, which I regret and I apologize for it. But you guys have to get used to it.”

Barnes had to deal with very personal attacks of racism himself as a teenager, growing up near Sacramento.  From Ramona Shelburne’s ESPN article, detailing Barnes’ experience with racial bigotry:

Barnes understands the powerful connotation of that despicable word. He is not ignorant. In fact, he might understand the depth, force and ugliness of that word as well as anyone in the NBA. He has seen it and lived it firsthand.

According to a 2001 story in The Orange County Register, in the spring of 1998, “skinheads” at Del Campo High, Barnes’ high school in suburban Sacramento, tried to burn down the campus. They spray-painted swastikas and racial epithets all over the school. In one hallway, they wrote, “Die Matt Barns Die.”

It was a scary, disgusting act. And it wasn’t the only time that Barnes, who is of mixed race, experienced such contemptible behavior.

According to the article: “Barnes played for a predominantly white high school in a predominantly white league. When he stepped on the basketball floor or the football field, fans would wave bananas. Students would spit at his sister. Parents would shout words too offensive to repeat.

“‘There was a lot of racial stuff at the schools,’ Del Campo basketball coach Scott Evans said. ‘It made him the tough kid that he is.'”

Barnes responded by fighting back and standing up to it. He became the best basketball player and football player in Sacramento. He earned a scholarship to UCLA and was a starter on two Sweet Sixteen teams. He went to the NBA and built a reputation as a tough-minded defender. The kind of guy you’d rather play with than against.


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2 thoughts on “Matt Barnes, the N-word and Reappropriation

  1. Ryan Keating says:

    I’m glad this conversation is going on right now. It really shows that the use of the word actually represents a certain type of enlightenment about race relations than people who don’t understand the use of the word. It is comradely which everyone should understand and goes along with the age old saying, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’…and in fact let’s start calling ourselves those words but slightly different, in our own way, and really draw power from them. People who are victims have little power but why not draw power from what you are victimized for. “Damn right we are fucking niggas!’ That kind of passion and energy for who you are can be enormously positive. Unfortunate for those that don’t get it. It would be a good history talk and a lesson on minority/democratic rights.

    However…I do not like how Charles Barkely went off the other day on TV about it. I did at first except for one big detail. I know he’s paid to say stupid things but he likened using nigga to using homophobic language in the locker room amongst friends. I was surprised it was not picked up on more given the momentum our country is going in with gay rights/awareness. That is not okay and actually displays the original intent of hateful language towards a minority (hence the actual word nigger), which makes him and those that he’s referring to who use such language seem like racist or I guess in this situation, homophobic fucking bigots! Yet bringing up another issue of relations among people. The only people, hence allowed to use that word, would be homosexuals in the same way that nigga has come about over time.

    Date: Sat, 16 Nov 2013 01:17:29 +0000 To:

  2. […] Matt Barnes, the N-Word and Reappropriation […]

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