The Season of Our Discontent or Life with the "N" Word

BlogHer Original Post

Any discusion of the "n" word in mixed company, mingling ethnic groups, gets uncomfortable, maybe even dirty. It'll shake some folks up, maybe burn a few, but if we're lucky, like supernaturally blessed lucky, we might learn something to heal our disease. So, I've set aside the post I'd intended to write about Starbucks closing. Instead I'm picking up a topic that I've told other bloggers privately I won't discuss again until possibly next year, use of the "n" word.

I said wait until next year because you know some drama about the "n" word will blow up again. It's become a fixture in our lives. Toni Morrison's assertion in Playing in the Dark that the African-American presence, either by appearing fully and positively or only as troublesome allusion, permeates American Literature may also be applied to the fabric of this nation. The blood-stained thread weaves through each patch, a pleasing splash of color or embarrasing stain.

First, Laina, thank you for taking on this complex subject. Laina is a BlogHer contributing editor who wrote about America's most recent dust-up over the "n" word, the Whoopi Goldberg/Elisabeth Hasselbeck drama. She's done an exceptional job. I like her pithtiness and how she also drew into the post the Jesse Jackson/Obama mess, a topic that reminds us just how much race has been in our faces this election year. Laina also had the following observation that made me laugh.

Plus, why are white folks so eager to say the N-word in public? It's like y'all chomping at the bit. Good luck with that. (Laina's post)

My problem with the "why can't we white people also use the "n" word because black people say it all the time" justification and then someone like Elisabeth Hasselbeck crying on The View over what, oh what will she teach her children if black people keep calling each other "n****r" is that the argument is bullsh*t. It's like most justifications that come from people who don't want to address a difficult issue honestly; it oversimplifies the subject, "white washes" it so to speak, just to let folks who are too lazy to walk in someone else's shoes off the hook for taking high road.

Really, how dare Hasselbeck make it sound as though black people are at fault for more white people using the "n" word? I'll concede that young white people listening to rap music have been stricken stupid by hearing this word so often, but what does that have to do with what Hasselbeck teaches her children about treating people with respect?

I know I'm treading a slippery slope here and certainly risk being called "an angry black woman," but that's okay. I'll be in good company with Laina and Michelle Obama. We have a tendency in this country to chide people for expressing anger about subjects that any fool knows should make a person angry. When feminists, for instance, passionately speak about the inequality of women, what's the common adjective tossed their way? Hmm, she sure sounds bitter. You may also hear some further discussion about it being her time of the month, or raging hormones from menopause. When black women speak of racial injustice, then it's "they're angry" and also, "You know how emotional those people are. They just don't know how to be rational."

I'm not angry. I'm frustrated.

I'm not so much frustrated by the racist policies and practices that affect African-Americans everyday. I was born into that. It's something you don't get over, but you do learn to adjust. You develop coping mechanisms such as practicing love instead of endulging meltdowns, and you live your life hoping the world will become what it should be. If you're not totally beaten down by the time you bear children, then you embrace the wonders of your heritage, ignore the hateful, and teach your children to behave as people would in a better world.

I am not angry but I am frustrated by people behaving as though they don't understand how some black people may use the word "n****r" sometimes and yet be incensed by people of other races using it. Frankly, this pretense of incomprehension is another form of racist propaganda, this view that black people are so foreign to white people and hard to understand when it comes to the "n" word. Any thoughtful person who takes time for introspection and observation knows that when black people use the "n" word they're exhibiting a common type of human behavior. What complicates the discussion and how we use language and the "n" word is the history of black people in this country, not that black people use it.

Part of the problem may be that some white people deny how much power they've enjoyed in this world, do not wish to consciously grasp the value of having white skin in a society that has historically favored white skin. I can understand how that happens. It's hard to see yourself as powerful when you're struggling to make rent yourself just like the black woman next door. It's hard for some people to put themselves as individuals within the context of centuries of history. So, they tell themselves that if there are any benefits to being white, they personally have not experienced it and so, therefore, have not benefited no matter what Andrew Hacker and those hoity-toity academics think.

Yet, I can't think of a nasty name for white people that non-white people may use that is as ugly as the "n" word. Is this because no matter what nasty name you call a white person (not that I spend time calling white people nasty names) it's understood that they are still "white," and so, have the upper hand?

Consider a joke that got a good laugh the first time African-American comedian Louis Ramey told it on Last Comic Standing. He said that he likes to play practical jokes. He likes to go to tanning salons: "Oh, I don't go in. I just stand outside and do this." Ramey holds his black arms and hands in front of him, widens his eyes, and then screams in terror. "Waaaaaahhhhhh!"

It's understood -- a little color is a good thing. Getting dark enough to be mistaken for a black person is quite another. We may agree that African-Americans have made great strides in this country. Look at this election season alone and the Obamas. But we also know, if we're honest, that for the average black person, life ain't no crystal stair to success. The Obamas, the Oprahs, the Tiger Woodses are exceptions not the rule. Yet, that they exist is a testament not only to their brilliance and perseverance but also to racial progress. When I was a child, there were no Oprahs and being like Obama could've been a death sentence for a black man in some states. (This is where I recommend the curious take a look at CNN's "Black in America" special.)

When I speak of a racial insult that someone could hurl at a white person, I'm talking about a mean word one group ascribes to members of another group no matter the content of a person's character or level of achievement. I'm not talking about personal insults. I've heard whitey, honky, cracker, peckerwood as insults to white people. However, none of these words will start a fight like the word "nigger."

Nevertheless, there is one word that I've always understood to be highly insulting to a white person and that is the word "redneck." The word "redneck" implies in one breath that a person is stupid, uneducated, possibly toothless and dirty, and "poor white trash" (a truly horrible phrase). Yet, whites who are most likely to come from a family background that the uncivil would call "redneck" call each other "redneck" in jest. They apply a pejorative to themselves the same way some black people use the "n" word .

An entire industry has arisen with branding of the word "redneck." Think Jeff Foxworthy and Blue Collar Comedy.

If the UFO hotline limits you to one call per day you might be a redneck. If directions to your house include turn off the paved road, you might be a redneck. If you prefer to walk the excess length of your jeans instead of hem them, you might be a redneck. If going to the bathroom in the middle of the night involves shoes and flashlight, you might be a redneck. ... If your two-year-old has more teeth than you, you might be a redneck. ... If your mother has ever has come out of the bathroom and said 'Y'all come look at this before I flush it,' you might be a redneck. If your dad walks you to school because he's in the same grade with you, you might be a redneck." (Jeff Foxworthy)

Many people who say they're rednecks and proud of it howl with laughter at Foxworthy's routine. But where does the humor come from? I suspect it comes from a place of pain, the same way Richard Pryor's comedy, and he used the "n" word often, sometimes came from a place of pain. So, some poor whites have taken the word "redneck," embraced it, and taken away its sting, which is the defense Whoopi gave Elisabeth for using the "n" word (a defense not all blacks share).

Within the embrace-the-n-word defense is the rationale that whites may not use the "n" word because whites, while they may have their own experiences with pain, cannot experience the pain that comes from being black in America. Indeed, the argument goes, whites created the environment in which black pain fermented. And yes, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, white people also coined the "n" word and cultivated it in world culture long before black rappers went overboard with it and other black artists addressed the shame, pointing out that most consumers of rap music are white young men.

If anything, the history of the use of the "n" word points to whites mishandling language and black slaves, who could have been beaten for reading books, adopting their masters' bad habits. The word is a mispronunciation of the word "Negro." Furthermore, when you consider how segregationists used even the word, "Negro," you realize insult comes through intent with tone. You may have heard someone, for instance, refer to an African-American woman as that "black" girl, and you knew that the acknowlegment that the woman is black was in itself the insult in the person's mind.

Some Americans show that they believe the word black itself may be the insult when in an effort to be politically correct are afraid to describe an African-American as "black." Somewhere in their hearts these PC people sense that black, being the opposite of white and all things perceived as good in this society, may be the bad thing.

Mexicans experience this phenomena today as some people have associated distastefulness with the word "Mexican." When they say "Mexican" they could as easily be saying "wetback" because the tone of voice suggests disgust.

Likewise, I have heard people use the word "Negro," which is not thought of as a pejorative, with a seething hatred for all things black. They say the word "Negro" with the same venom another person says "nigger." And then there's simply a way of saying either word that no one can fathom:

My decision (to not use the "n" word in a book with slave narrations) also derived from my frustration in trying to puzzle out its use as recorded by the subjects’ amanuenses. It is often impossible to determine whether a former slave employed the word in its derogatory sense, or whether as a more neutral variation on the word “Negro.” In fact it is sometimes hard to judge whether they employed it at all, or whether it was introduced by their interviewers and their editors as part of their attempt to render all African-American testimony in “Negro Dialect.”

“The situation is always delicate,” wrote an Arkansas interviewer. “Somehow both interviewer and interviewee avoid the ugly word whenever possible. The skillful interviewer can generally manage to pass it by completely, as well as any variant of the word negro. The informant is usually less squeamish. ‘Black folks,’ ‘colored folks,’ ‘black people,’ ‘Master's people,’ ‘us’ are all encountered frequently.” (Andrew Ward)

Back to the word redneck. What if a white person of the so-called "upper" class who had never been poor, never in a position to be called "poor white trash" were to call another white person who did grow up poor and struggling a redneck. Would the person who had been called that name laugh with him/her sincerely? Unlikely. I'm talking ordinary people here, not spiritual gurus.

Of course, the word "redneck" could never be applied to a white person of second or third generation wealth who'd never done a day's hard labor. If you called a wealthy, educated white person a redneck, the person would probably give you a quizzical look, might even laugh. The epithet will never apply. He's not poor. He's not uneducated and toothless at 40, and neither is anyone in his immediate family.

But a black person, no matter how wealthy, no matter how educated, may be dehumanized in an instant by the "n" word as insult. He/She may put on bravado's mask, but the word "nigger" has a distinctive sting unlike any other. Can you assure him or her you did not mean it as insult?

And here I am, a black person. Would I call a blue collar white person in the south a "redneck" for fun? Let's say I just heard that same white person call his friend "redneck." Would that make it okay for me to do the same?

Answer: "Only if I'm an idiot." I know the history of the word. I know it's meant to denigrate. So, I really don't care what one white person calls another white person. That's between them. As a black person who knows it's a mean word, I sure as hell better not call him that name or any other racist insult unless I'm cruising for a brawl.

Where does that leave us and the Whoopi/Elisabeth show? At the same place this discussion should always take us if we practice civility, at The Golden Rule: treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you don't want people to be glib about throwing what may be an insult your way, then don't throw any their way.

Weepy, whiney Elizabeth Hasselbeck should know this as should any other mother or father who genuinely wants to raise children to live life as it should be lived. When you're teaching young children to contribute their best to this world, you don't need to give a history lesson about the "n" word. Neither do they need explanations for why the two black kids called each other that strange name. The only thing you or Elisabeth needs to teach a child as far as name calling goes is don't do it. Would she have us believe that if her child comes home and says I do drugs because other people do it that she would say, "Well, I can't teach you not to do that until those other children stop as well?"

When it's time for that history lesson about black people and white people in a country that in its past has condoned slavery, segregation, systemized brutality and oppression, then give that lesson. Until then, keep it simple.

So, bottom line for me, use of the "n" word when it comes to whites who want to use it has nothing to do with what black people feel free enough to call themselves within "the family." Ask yourselves, as Laina suggested in her post, "Why do you as a white person want to say the word at all?" The answer should scare you.

Nordette is a Contributing Editor with BlogHer.com whose personal blog is hosted on another site at this link.

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