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Monday, August 12, 2013

The n-word

There is perhaps no topic in the whole realm of the subject of race that I find more exasperating than that of the n-word. For every time the hateful and hurtful use of it by a nonblack person becomes news (most recently: Paula Dean, Tim Allen's defense of Paula Dean, Rush Limbaugh's response to Rachel Jeantel, Riley Cooper, etc., etc.), inevitably the defense is gonna be "but I hear black people using it all the time--so what's the difference?" At the risk of oversimplifying or using unequal offenses for comparison (there really IS no equivalent comparison, IMHO, in our language and culture, to the ugly damage and reaction that the n-word can inflict and prompt), let me take a stab at defusing the "so what's the difference?" argument:

If someone has a mental disability, it is (we all know this) hateful and hurtful to refer to that person as a "retard." If that person decides to refer to him- or herself as such, so be it. If that person, when getting together with other people with mental disabilities, decide to call themselves and one another "retards," so be it. It is not license for you and me, who do not suffer mental disabilities, to call them "retards."

If someone is from the rural hills of West Virginia, or Southwest Virginia, or Eastern Kentucky, or Eastern Tennessee, or Northern Georgia, or the Ozarks of Missouri or Arkansas, and decides to self-identify as a "hillbilly," so be it. If, when they are among their own, they refer to themselves and one another from time to time as "hillbillies," they have not offended you or me. That does NOT make it OK for US to begin referring to residents and former residents of those parts by that term.

If some lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and/or transgendered people begin to refer to themselves as "queer," it's no skin off my back. If they set up a "queer studies" university program, host a "queer studies" conference, engage in writing and discussing "queer theory," well, all right then. Am I then right in beginning to lable all LGBT people as "queer?" Of course not.

A hair-challenged person may refer to themselves as "baldy," a larger person may call themselves "fat," a short person may refer to themselves as a "shrimp". A mutlti-ethnic or multi-racial person may say they are a "mutt." None of this changes what terms someone NOT of these categories should use in referring to people of these categories. A friend may even give us individual permission to refer to THEM by these labels, but they do not have the authority to serve as spokespersons for their group, to authorize and justify our use of said label for all member of the group, in any setting.

And, finally, though I don't intend to go into a long discussion of history and power dynamics here, let me briefly say that a member of a historically kidnapped, enslaved, oppressed and excluded group referring to a member of the historically (and currently) empowered group as a "cracker" doesn't even BEGIN to compare in hatred, damage, inflamatory capacity, etc. to a white person's use of the n-word. Not even in the same galaxy. Nope.

1 comment:

JustAMan said...

This post is completely misguided. I made my way here because I was looking into whether David Allen Coe had anything constructive to say about some of his obviously racist songs and found your post on that. I think those songs are terrible, having never met him or heard much from him about the lyrics though, I will withhold judgement on the man.

That said you are making a silly argument. The point is that there is no excuse for using such terms if you are going to go ahead and be offended by them when used by another person outside your "group". Just like DAC defending his songs by saying "rappers use that word all the time" is weak (they are also using a racist term, someone else's racism doesn't mean you are allowed to be) the argument "someone who is part of the offended group can say what they want" is weak. If you find a word hurtful then it is hurtful - don't use it. The case of people who are of a different than average mental capacity. By the way for someone so concerned with being politically correct, it seems to me that disabled is a bit of a condemning term. I know many people who would be labelled with "mentally disabled" who are perfectly mentally capable of living an independent life which doesn't seem disabled to me at all. This case though is because these individuals may not have the capacity to understand why it would be wrong to use hurtful terms, some will have that ability though and should be held to the same standard as everyone else.

You mention a case that I think is a good example actually. Let's look at Riley Cooper. This is a man who probably hears the word that caused such a stir fifty times a day in the locker room he shares with his teammates. I bet that word flies around from mouths of every color and nobody cares in the locker room. At the very least I am certain that there must be some African American players who use the word around their teammates. So then - is Cooper part of this group that is allowed to say the word, or is he only part of that group in the locker room? Why should there be a double standard? He is on a team after all, and these guys should all trust one another - in fact many of his teammates had at least the initial reaction that they were not upset by the comment he made. If we all agreed that this was a word best left to die rather than continually used this situation would not have arisen.

As to your last point I have to disagree. I think that in general the term "cracker" does not bother "white" people because they are less sensitive to racism in general. They have not been told repeatedly by people like Jesse Jackson that they need to be looking out for being offended about their race - to me these individuals are just using race as a tool to maintain a position of power over a specific community. However, whether or not it bothers someone the intent of the word is what matters, not the word itself or the history behind it. If you mean to be racist, you are racist and I do not think anyone is in a position to say that some measure of racism is somehow better than any other bit of racism.

I'll leave you with this. It seems to me from some of your comments I have read here you view yourself as a white person who is unfairly privileged over other people, who you presumably see as disadvantaged black, hispanic, middle eastern, etc. people. I see you as a person, just that. Just like any other person in fact. Maybe there are people out there who create advantages and disadvantages for people based on meaningless categories they invent, but those people are also just people. It is OK to acknowledge that these differences exist, but to dwell on them is to take away from the point that we are all just that - people. Maybe we should just all agree to start treating each other that way.