Tuesday, July 22, 2008

About "the N word"

This weekend, my mom, dad and I had a heated discussion about "the N word." As most things are, the debate was all Elisabeth Hasselbeck's fault. By now, you've probably seen footage of "The View" co-host getting upset during a discussion about Jesse Jackson's whispered nigger on a Fox News hot mic.

(The audio is off in this video, but you get the point.)

(Trigger warning: If your buttons are pushed by watching a young, privileged blond get all trembly, teary and victimized while talking about race to a black woman who has actually felt the sting of racism, marginalization and dehumanization, and whose parents actually were denied the right to vote, then you'd best avoid this.)



God help me, my mother agrees with Elisabeth. She thinks that black folks cannot expect people of other races not to use "the N word" if we are going to use it ourselves. Though she understands that there is a difference in intent, my mother believes that the average person does not understand that. She also believes that the widespread use of the word in black popular culture is an indication of our community's self-hatred. And so, "the N word" is best buried forever.

I am no fan of "the N word" in any of its incarnations--the "er" ending or the more hip "a." The word has an ugly history. (It should be noted that its ugly history is related to use by white Americans enslaving and oppressing African Americans. White America has a unique negative relationship with "the N word.".) I do wish its use were not so pervasive in the black community. Other groups--women, gays and ethnic whites--have taken words that were once used to denigrate and demonize and reclaimed them, but none have done so with as much gusto as African Americans have embraced the word nigger. Maybe my mother is right and that does say something about how we view ourselves. I'm not going to defend "the N word," but I do call bullshit on any person who claims not to understand why it is socially acceptable for black people to use the word and very much not okay for anyone else to do the same.

When I lived in Chicago, I occasionally heard the Windy City's ethnic white residents greet each other affectionately with terms that surely used to be fighting words for their Irish, Italian or Polish immigrant forebears. The use of these words seemed to cause no confusion. I knew full well why they could say them and I could not. I had no desire to use ethnic slurs to refer to my neighbors. I won't even write them here.

But this isn't really about race and ethnicity. It's about common sense. Black folks can use "the N word" and white folks can't for the same reason that you can slap your best buddy on the back and call him a cheap bastard, while anyone else who did that would get punched in the face...for the same reason you can tease your sister about being slutty, but those words from another would leave her steamed...for the same reason a feminist pop culture magazine can be named Bitch (Great magazine, btw.) and a lad magazine can't.

This is the way it is and everyone knows it: Family (literal and figurative)--the people who care about you--can say things that would be offensive coming from someone else. You know your family's intentions are positive. My sister often teases me about my nappy, natural hair. She does so with the affection of a younger sibling. When Don Imus calls a group of black, female athletes "nappy-headed hoes," there is no affection there.

So, about "the N word"...black folks probably use the word too much, 'tis true. But it is also true that we don't have a history of using the word to dehumanize and oppress another race. And we all know that what is said within the "family" is quite different from what is said by people outside of it. Anyone who claims otherwise is being disingenuous.

No, Elisabeth, you can't use "the N word" and I think you, and others who make the "but black people say it" argument, know full well why you can't. So, why the dishonest argument?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

This last article on the "N" word Tami is sensible and should be obvious to all. Why can't we have Tami on The View! Geez.

I believe what is at issue is that oppressors hate the idea that they are forbidden to say anything they want to, thus giving black people power. Black people have the power to define words and use them within the "family" and white people resent being told what to do.

I am very familiar with this, because men hate it when they can't use degrading words about women anytime they want to. It's why the rappers say such awful things about women in their songs, and get away with it. They call it political correctness and get all mad; oh my god, women can tell us to shut up! That's power when you can silence an oppressor.

I find it delightful when men are punished for their horrible words about women. I was bemused by Don Imus and all the outrage, because it was over the racist comment, and not the sexism of the incident with the basketball team. When has Jackson or Sharpton ever been noted for feminist outrage? I can tell a fake feminist at 100 paces!

White people never want to be told what to do, as all dominant groups don't. A dominant group feels it is entitled to dominate in every way, and that it can never be told what NOT to do. That's the nature of oppressor classes.

Everything Tami writes should be so obvious by now, and Hasselback's tearful performance must prove that she really is stupid or she is being disingenious. You'd think everyone by now would get "in group" speak and its inherent well meant affaction, and out group speak, which is usually not well meant.

And as for poor Jesse Jackson, well, I'd even cut him some slack too. There is public speech and private one-on-one speech. We all say really mean jerky things in private, and if we think we have this privacy, then it should be regarded as such, no matter how dumb the comment.

When I hear men have respect for women behind closed doors amongst themselves, then I will know progress is here. Same thing for white people when they finally get that black folk are fully human.

In my social circles, I don't hear the "N" word the "F" word or any other vulgar words. I don't associate with vulgar people period. Language and its useage are deal makers and breakers for me. Offenders have learned the hard way, and friends and allies have been showered with love. Simple.

Symphony said...

If Elisabeth saw five white women calling each other sluts, whores and bitches in a kidding manner she wouldnt go over and address those women she does not know in the same fashion. I'm tired of white people trying to act like they don't get it and black people who enable them.

Penni Brown said...

I don't think anyone should use the word. But, I had an epiphany about the 'buy you say it, why can't i?' argument. It all boils down to white priveledge.

How dare we tell them 'no, this isn't for you.'

We've given away so much of 'our stuff' jazz, rock and roll, rap, fried chicken and waffles (ok, joking, kinda- although i did see bobby flay 'throwdown' with a chicken and waffle pro) that they are shocked and offended that THIS thing, we decide to keep to ourselves.

I only wish we would've fought soo adamantly before letting them have control of so many of our other things. our real valuables.

Ana said...

elisabeth hasselbeck pisses me off for so many reasons. now I have a new reason to dislike her.

MacDaddy said...

Tami: Good post, but you got me thinking so deeply my head is hurting. And I got to go to a meeting.

I agree with all you've said, but why am I feeling your mother on this? No disrespect but, when I was counseling youth, including gangbangers, I talked like your mother, when it came to the N word. I insisted that nobody use the word nigga or bitches in our group. They hated the rule and called me "old school."

Most used the argument that they feel different about it than racist-- that they mean it affectionately; and I think they were sincere. But I stuck to my argument that, historically, it has been used to demean and humiliate black people and that we wouldn't be using any words that even hinted at anything negative about black people. They lifted their eyes and shook their heads. But I like to think they respected me for my consistency; and I used to like it when they would say, "MacDaddy, you alright to be so old school."

slag said...

So, why the dishonest argument?
This is an extremely compelling question. I have always taken Republicans' whining about double-standards for things like this at face-value. That they don't like being told what not to do by people who do these things themselves. But your attribution of intelligence to these people puts a whole new spin on things. I'm trying to determine whether you're being generous to them or mean to them. I guess that depends on whether being "dishonest" is better than just being stupid.

Jennifer said...

Tami,
Thanks for such a thoughtful post (as usual!). Elizabeth Hassleback gives me stomachaches. And her privilege is SOOOO obvious.

But I think one of the many problems with the scenario that you sketched out has to do with the ways in which white people (and others) don't see their privilege. In other words, it's all an equal playing field for the likes of EH and others who claim that if African Americans use these words then how can we blame others for the use?

I know it seems obvious to the readers of this blog and others working on anti-racist issues, but I think as one other commenter noted, it all boils down to white privilege, and it's so invisible that they don't see it and we keep saying they should and so we end up ripping our hair out when EH says such enraging things.

I also want to say I appreciate MacDaddy's comments and his work with younger populations. It reminds me of the reason Dave Chappelle stopped doing his show on Comedy Central--he was tired of these white frat guys echoing back his skits and he realized that they didn't get it--they didn't get the racial satire and were parroting it back as if they now OWNED it, which brings us full circle to white privilege and the co-optation of other voices and discourses.

Hagar's Daughter said...

I agree with your mom on this one Tami. The neighbors that you are referring to, well let's just say that I don't hear those ethic slurs being blasted car stereos and on MTV.

When the N-word was used among black folks there similarity with other ethic slurs used by that ethic group in each others' company.

It's out of control and black folks need to stop using it and making excuses to use it. I was appalled by Sheri and Whoopi's defense of the use on national tv because I knew that what they were saying would get lost in all that happened. You did such a wonderful job making the point of black folks experiencing racism and the full ugliness of the word.

It's NEVER okay for whites to utter that word. While Elisabeth was crying and talking about how inappropriate it is for all to say it, I wonder what her actions scream when she is off camera.

Tami said...

Just to be clear, I am not advocating use of "the N word." I'm simply saying that I don't believe people who say they don't understand why it is different when blacks use the word.

Monica Roberts said...

Tami,
That was right on target.

BTW, If you're ever in Louisville, lunch is on me!

Tami said...

Don't tempt me, Monica. I ain't that far from Louisville and I love a free lunch! (lol)

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