From The View to Slutwalk: Dust-ups Over the N-word

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When discussing the recent media reports about the name of Republican US presidential candidate Governor Rick Perry’s family’s hunting camp, an argument ensued when Barbara Walters used the word “Nigger” when referring to the name. Granted, Whoopi Goldberg had already referred to the camp, which has caused some controversy, (and reports vary as to whether it was painted over, or whether it still stands) as Perry, who is from Texas and was previously given the side-eye by many folks for his staunch on immigration and the death penalty, but for Sherri Sheppard, there was more vitriol in the word when Walters used it, versus Goldberg.

"I didn't like the way you said it. ... I don't know if it's a semantics thing, but it's something that goes through my body,” Sheppard said to Walters.  

Image Credit: The View, ABC

The dust-up on The View over racial issues is nothing new, as during the 2008 US Presidental Election, the Democrats (Goldberg, Sheppard and Joy Behar) constantly argued with the Republican (Elizabeth Hasslebeck) and the neutral (Barbara Walters, who wants to desperately keep the show on air), and it was clearly evident that there were differing views - even between Goldberg  - whose views on race have been questionable at times - and Sheppard. The controversy over whom is using “Nigger” and how it is construed is, unfortunately, nothing new, as since the ill-advised usage and later, it's awkwardly explained use by Black Hip-Hop artists in the 1990's to 'reclaim' the word ( as 'Nigga') as one that carried endearment between Black folks, instead of hatred and violence.  While Sheppard has been torn ‘a new one’ (get what I’m sayin’?) over her obvious bias towards Walters on the ‘Net, coming to a resolution on this is certainly not going to happen anytime soon.

According to The Huffington Post’s Steven Petrow, who runs the column “MannersWatch”, Walters wins the argument:

“Walters is given an added pass because both of her co-hosts had already used the name on a national broadcast, no doubt leading her to think that it was an acceptable term on the program, although a heartfelt disclaimer similar to Goldberg's would likely have gone a long way in tempering Shepherd's fire and ire. Next time, Whoopi and Sherri, please don't use these phrases in mixed company if you don't want to send a mixed message. And don't do it on national TV.” 

While I have to admit that Sheppard’s retort to Walter’s usage was a bit weak, as her explanation wasn’t fleshed out, as a Black woman I understand where she, and co-host Goldberg are coming from – I strongly disagree on Petrow, whom is the former president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, who despite his previous position, is not in the position as a White man to be telling African-American women how they should think and feel about a word that to many somewhat informed people, is not only a ‘word’ but a usage that historically has been a vehicle for hatred and in many cases, murder of Black people.

When Goldberg uses the word in the context of this situation and others, as a Black woman I know that she is not using it in a form of malice. When a non-Black person says it, that feeling of malice, based on their position in society, is more questionable. I think that’s what Sheppard meant, and I understand. But just because Petrow is gay, he is still benefits from White privilege,and he doesn’t have the pedigree to judge the situation. 

On the other hand, while I personally detest both Walters and Hasselbeck (who posits herself as the White woman every heterosexual woman – regardless of ethnicity and sexual orientation - should desire to be) Walters wasn’t really at fault. I do not believe that she meant malice; she is just pretty dim on the history of the word, the negative connotations that arise when a (innocent) White person says it, and why Sheppard would be so sensitive from the word coming from a privileged, White woman’s mouth. You would think that because of her age and her world experience she would know otherwise, but apparently, she does not. 

I have many White male friends, and in discussions with them about race or something related to that a couple of them (people I trust and respect) have used the word “Nigger” in our conversations. Because I know them, and in relation to the context of what we are talking about, I feel it and it makes me pause, but I do not feel that they are trying to insult  'my kind', or feel that I am what that word construes. I also understand that it is confusing (but not that confusing – read a damn book) as the hidden, unwritten rule as to why White people should never use that word. But there is too much history, too much hurt to make some people understand that while it is hard, and sometimes unfair, that there is a legitimate double-standard in place. 

Also this week, an image from the recent Slutwalk in New York City made the rounds on a number of Blogs. The image consisted of a young White woman holding a sign that said “Women is the Nigger of the World.” The slogan is from a song originally coined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, herself a woman of color – but not Black. While the song was to discuss the marginalization of women, the appropriation of that slur was greatly misused. 

The Slutwalk demonstrations which have taken place in cities across the world, have been rife with controversy over the intent of the demonstrations, and the seemingly lack of women of color in North American cities who are actively participating.  This sign was another nail in the coffin of the movement, as this young, ignorant woman unwittingly symbolized the tension within the White “feminist movement,” and their seemingly lack of acknowledgement that race and sexuality play a big part in how women are perceived. There are those, like myself, who felt that Slutwalk really symbolized the plight of heterosexual White women’s denigration at being told that they should dress a certain way in order to avoid being sexually assaulted. For women of color, racial and sexual stereotypes, regardless of their dress, are seen as a green light to be sexually assaulted and harassed and have not been publicly acknowledged outside of their respective communities. Those issues are not addressed in the Slutwalk Movement, and this movement is thought to only have been active when White women were chastised.

The difference between when White women are publicly harangued and the generations – old sexualization of Black women’s bodies, plus the misusage of “Nigger” triggered the backlash on the image, first innocently posted as part of a photo gallery on New York Magazine’s online site.

Racialicious, and other blogs dedicated towards writing about women of color, have done a stellar job at covering the controversy.  It was noted that at the time when this picture was shot, that none of the women with or surrounding the woman questioned her about the legitimacy of the poster. It was only when a Black woman participant asked her to take it down, was when she did. And obviously New York Magazine, which has a prominent online presence and a large print circulation, didn’t’ seem to think it was such a big deal, either - which says a lot about our society in general.

Racialicious posted the response from the young woman that was posted on the Slutwalk Facebook page, who feels that “Nigger” “is just a word:” 

Kelly Hannah Peterlinz There was no disrespect, hurt, pain, or offence intended. I don’t think there was one racist person there. I, the one holding the sign, though not the one who made it, would never use that word offensively. The word and it’s meaning is wrong, but the sign is true. There is no contest about it. I am probably the least racist person out there. I have never even mistakenly judged someone by the color of their skin. Don’t judge before you know what is really going on.

Kelly Hannah Peterlinz I did not make the sign, but still feel wrong and sick. I apologize for being photographed with it and would like to ask for it to be taken down. I never thought this experience could make me ashamed or hurt, or even make me cry, but it has. Anyone who has seen photos of me with it please ask for them to be taken down. Erin this is not your fault, I just don’t wish to be hated for a word mphasis mine) 

This speaks to the affect that “Nigger” has in some circles in the White populace, versus the African-American community (and those who have taken the time and have the sensitivity to understand the underlying hate that the word construes).  The common defense is, “Well, if Black people say it, why can’t we?”  or “I don’t see color." But those excuses no longer  hold water - and how do these people who use these straw-man excuses really know - outside of the occasional Hip-Hop song from the late '90's  - if Black folks are using it in everyday language? And if it is “just a word” why was it used on a sign at that demonstration?

Why is there such a desire by non-Black folk to use a word so filled with hate and venom? 

A commenter on the Facebook discussion describes Sheppard's reaction to Walter’s comments and Ms. Peterlinz’s weak excuse about using “Nigger" means to many people:

What kills me is that white folks still have NOT moved one inch past telling women of color how to feel or think about anything and everything. Even worse, we are still explaining that we are both BLACK and WOMEN, all day, everyday….There is something just plain sad about feminism and feminist movements that can’t get this basic concept. Regardless of the “intent” or what white folks “think” the sign was supposed to mean, black women in significant numbers are offended, deeply. To make light of those feelings, to keep trying to avoid responsibility for the screw-up, makes the ability to have any kind of positive dialogue about what went wrong impossible.


Contributing EditorRace, Ethnicity & Culture

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