Wednesday, February 20, 2013

In The Confessional

Sometimes, blogging is a lot like going to confession, only there’s no real absolution that comes from it. Then again, I don’t think any real absolution comes from going to confession, either, and you can curse when you blog, which makes it much more satisfying.
But still, it’s a lot like going to confession.
The confessional nature of this enterprise occurred to me after reviewing some of the comments I got here and via social media regarding last night’s post on White people using the “n-word.” To recap, my position is: Just don’t do it.
To my surprise, that position wasn’t unanimously agreed to. Although most of the feedback was positive (and, of course, nobody suggest that racism was acceptable in any way whatsoever), some weren’t prepared to say that any word should be completely off limits. More to the point, some argued that my approach – categorically rejecting White folks’ use of the word – has the unintended consequence of maintaining the word’s negative power. People, so the theory goes, can give words power or take that power away. So, declaring the word to be off limits actually makes it worse, while allowing use of the word at least in some circumstances ultimately weakens it.
I’ll address that point momentarily, but for reasons I don’t fully understand, this whole discussion compels me to make a confession – and this is something I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before. But here goes: I have, in fact, uttered the very word that I’m saying White people should lay off of.
Before you accuse me of hypocrisy, though, let me explain. I was, I think, in first or second grade, which means it was somewhere between 1968 and 1970. We were sitting around the dinner table, having the kind of discussion liberal families had at the dinner table in the late ’60s – about politics, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, anti-war protests, or whatever Mike Royko happened to write about in the final markets edition of The Chicago Daily News that day. And at some point, that word came up. I don’t recall how it came up, or in what context, but I knew that word was an awful word; it was something nobody in my family would ever say.
As the youngest of eleven kids, I didn’t participate in these dinner-table conversations. I listened. I tried to figure out what they were talking about. I took mental notes. So, that evening, I was sitting there doing what I did – listening, taking mental notes – and I found my self both fascinated and repelled by this one horrible word, which seemed to be the worst thing anyone could possibly say.
And so I said it, quietly, to myself. More like, I sort of breathed it, almost inaudibly. In fact, I wasn’t sure that I had actually said it aloud, but one of my older brothers, sitting to my left (yes, I remember it that clearly), overheard me. And he was livid. He snapped at me, albeit quietly so that nobody else would hear: Don’t ever say that word again!
I was mortified. Obviously. I mean, I’m fifty years old and I still remember like it was yesterday. Understand, I wasn’t saying it at anyone or to anyone. I wasn’t using it to describe anyone. And I certainly wasn’t saying it like it was a good, appropriate thing to say. For some reason, I just wanted to know what it would be like to say that word.
It was every bit as awful as I thought it would be.
But that memory, I think, goes to this issue of how a word like that gets its power. The counterargument to the rule I championed yesterday – the Don’t Drop The N-Bomb If You’re White rule – is that humans give words power, and humans, if they choose to, can take that power away. I don’t think that’s exactly right. I think human emotions give words power, and I don’t think people choose which emotions to experience in any given situation. You don’t choose what to feel; you just feel it.
More importantly, nobody gets to choose the emotions other people experience. If somebody hears that word and is deeply offended by it, that’s their reaction to it; nobody has the right to say that isn’t a valid reaction. And, in particular, if a Black person hears that word and is offended, White people don’t get to pass judgment on that reaction. We don’t get to be the final arbiters of other people’s emotions.
So it’s not something I, as a White person, can elect to do. I can’t decide that if I say it enough, and I say it the right way – whatever that would be – then eventually other people, specifically Black people, will be less and less hurt by it. I can’t choose to deprive that word of its power, because it’s not up to me how that word makes other people feel. Especially the people who’ve been the target of that word over the centuries.
As a comfortable little suburban White kid, saying that word aloud made me feel like shit. That wasn’t a voluntary reaction. Those we my emotions, and nobody gets to tell me I was wrong to feel that way. I can’t begin to imagine how it would make a Black person feel to hear me say it, and I don’t have the right to dictate how he or she should feel.
So I’m sticking by my rule, thank you very much.
And I’m not saying any fucking Hail Marys.

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