Saturday, February 23, 2013

But Do You Really Want To Take Away The Meaning Of That Word?

Believe it or not, I don’t know everything. No, wait. Strike that. Believe it or not, I don’t actually believe I know everything. You might think I think I know everything, what with all the opinionated blogging and all. But, really, I don’t. Think that, I mean.
So when I wrote recently about White people using the n-word (and yes, that’s how I’m going to refer to it; sorry), and then wrote about some of the reactions I got to that post, I wasn’t suggesting that I know everything there is to know about the topic. Because I most certainly don’t.
In fact, there are quite a few people who understand the issue in ways I can’t. Like, for example, Shayla Pierce (@ShaylaDPierce on Twitter) who writes at XO Jane. She explains, in ways I never could, why it is not, and likely never will be, okay for White folks to bandy that word about:
But would it really be horror, Shayla? It’s 2013 in allegedly post racial America.  Your president is Black for crying out loud.  Wouldn’t that word just roll right off your back?
Quite the contrary.  All that is precisely the reason why it doesn’t.  A complete stranger has the ability to come along and remind you that, still, after all this time and all the progress you think you’ve made, people still hate you just because your skin is brown.  And in an instance, with little more effort than it takes to breathe, can reduce you to absolutely nothing.  
Read the whole piece. It’s brilliant, but more than that: It comes from someone who knows. And because she knows, people ought to listen.
That’s right, my fellow White folks. We could stand to do more listening than talking on this particular subject.
In any event, Pierce’s description of having been victimized by the n-word at age 9 struck me on a visceral level. My daughter is 11 – not far removed from the age Pierce was when that occurred – and if anyone ever hurt my daughter like that, let me tell you: Their dental records had better be up to date. You know. For purposes of identifying the body.
But, of course, no one ever could hurt my daughter precisely like that. There are all sorts of mean, awful, horrible, vicious things somebody could say to her – things that would, I assure you, cause me to visit that same swift and terrible retribution upon the offender mentioned above, like the hand of freaking God – but nothing precisely like calling a 9 year old Black girl the n-word. Is it the worst thing anyone could ever say to a young person? I don’t know, because I can’t know.
That’s called privilege. White people like me, my wife, my kids … we can’t know what it’s like to be victimized by those kinds of racial slurs; all we can do is listen to those who actually do know it, and try to understand, however imperfectly. Because it’s important to try to understand what other people have gone through, especially when the effort to understand means you come to grips with your own privilege.
Which leads me to ask this question. I understand the counterargument that some people make; the argument that by using the n-word – or, for that matter, any other slur, racial, ethnic, religious, gender-based, whatever – you deprive that word of its hurtful meaning. Recall that famous scene from Lenny where Dustin Hoffman, playing the title character, says if we used that word regularly, then maybe, eventually, nobody’d be able to use it to hurt a Black child ever again.
So, yeah, I get the point. But I have to ask: Do you really want to change the meaning of that word? Do you really want to take the hurt out of it?
No, I’m not asking if you really want to stop hurting people by using racial slurs. Of course you do. But there’s a very easy way to stop hurting people by using racial slurs: Stop using them. Which was the point of my original piece.
My point here is this: The hurtful nature of that word has actual, historical significance. It is, in a sense, an historical document in its own right. Racial slurs, racist language and imagery, and especially the n-word itself, were part-and-parcel of our history of racial oppression. Language was one of the chief weapons in the racist’s arsenal, a tool used to dehumanize African Americans and make institutionalized racism, from slavery to segregation, possible. Because you can’t do that to other human beings unless you see them as less than human.
Let’s imagine Lenny Bruce was right and by repeating the word over and over and over again, it loses all of its power. It’s no longer a hurtful word. Then how do you teach that aspect of our history? How do future generations come to understand what that word meant, in its historical context? They wouldn’t be able to grasp the meaning of that word as it was used by Twain and Faulkner, let alone how it was used in the days of Jim Crow.
It’s a word that’s ineluctably tied to our history. I don’t believe you can understand the history of America in its entirety without understanding the power of that word.
So, I’m sorry, White people, but I think we’re stuck with it. And with all its mean, awful, horrible, vicious power. We own the hurt it’s caused over the years. We can’t wish away that part of our history.
But fer Chrissakes, please stop saying it.


  1. I have a friend I discuss this with often - erasing history, that is. It's convenient to delicate modern sensibilities to pretend that things were never bad or objectionable in the past, but means that we can't ever see how we've progressed, and how much further we have to go.

    Note - this friend and I often discuss it in the context of older fiction - how people want to either ignore it, say they can't read it because it's "full of fail" or would prefer to see modern updates of it.

    Those who ignore....etc.

    1. History, despite its wrenching pain
      Cannot be unlived, and if faced
      With courage, need not be lived again

      – Maya Angelou, “Inaugural Poem” (1993)

  2. The first line of my twitter profile is "Smart people know what they don't know." You've proved once again, Dave, that you are brilliant with this posting.

    I got into it a few years back with a now banned idiot on DailyKos who claimed he understood what it meant to deal with racism because his grandparents told him about the stigma they incurred from the "Irish need not apply" practice in the 19th & early 20th Centuries. Now being identifiably Irish (my twitter handle is a only slight deviation of my real name) as well as a heavily freckled, green eyed, redhead, I had the duty to give this guy a cyber whacking based on this very same concept.

    Those of us who are non-Hispanic Caucasians cannot ever know what it is like to walk out the door, knowing that it is guaranteed we will encounter people who are hateful, fearful and suspicious of us because of the color of our complexion. Anyone who claims they do understand is lying and unwilling to face their own cultural biases.
    My step uncle is 1/2 Puerto Rican and 1/2 Jamaican. He served honorably during Vietnam and came home with very evident symptoms of PTSD. But he will tell you, the scars from his PTSD pale in comparison to the scars he's dealt with his whole life from racists, closeted or otherwise.


    1. Thank you. I really appreciate the kind words, and I wholeheartedly agree.

  3. I mostly agree with your original post about white people using the n word. But I would suggest one more circumstance where it might be appropriate.

    I have never called anyone by that epithet, nor ever used it in the presence of a black person, for that matter. But sometimes in the company of conservative whites I get pretty sick and tired of the genteel code words and dog whistles. So I might just look them in the eye and say something like, "Oh yeah, gotta keep those n****rs in their place, right?" This is usually followed by much defensive backpedaling.

    Sometimes you've got to rub their noses in it.