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?


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