Throwback Thursday: Real Talk about the Word, originally posted on June 10, 2017, examines the continued use of racial slurs – in particular, the N-word – in response to the Bill Maher controversy. Black History Month is the perfect time to throw it back to this particular story.
The question of the use of racial slurs is particularly confounding in an era where victims are fighting back against their oppressors. However, it appears as if a double standard exists that props up an us v. them paradigm. For true equality to be achieved, though, all involved must understand that there can only be us – not different standards for different people.
Also, keep in mind for all of the uproar over Maher’s comments, the public quickly forgot all of the claims of racism made against him and by the end of the month, the story fell by the wayside. It’s amazing how short of memories people have for some people but not for others.
I’ve said the N-word before. I’m not proud of it, but I was callow and young and stupid then.
I can blame my homogeneous white neighborhood I grew up in, the public/private schools and even the college I attended. Hell, I can even blame some of my elders and their old-world prejudices.
But none of that makes it right.
That was before I had ever come to know a person of color, have a conversation with a person of color, or understand a person of color. Now, though, I understood why that word must go.
Supposed-comedian Bill Maher learned that lesson last week when he made a coarse, insensitive comment about being a “house n***a” after Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse invited him to “work in the fields with us.”
First, Maher attempted to be glib in intimating that slaves tasked with home duties had a less arduous life than those in the fields. However, as his friend, Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson explained to him on the last night’s (June 9th) episode of Real Time “Black people were saying it’s not as if Black people in the house were any better of than people in the field. Both of them were subjected to slave dominance, hegemony, hatred, rape, and the like.”
Dyson went on to claim that some might consider Maher’s tasteless humor an “unconscious reflex – nobody would ascribe to you any malicious intent, but that’s the point, right? That it grows out of a culture that reflexively identifies that particular word with some heinous acts in history, so they think it’s a matter of privilege it doesn’t happen.”
So, Dyson is saying because Maher was so comfortable and culturally fluid, he thought it was okay to use a slur in a joking way. Obviously not since the joke fell flat with pretty much everyone in the universe. Yet, Maher’s misstep begs a greater question that he himself has posed.
In Zeeba Blay’s Huffington Post commentary on Maher’s apology (which doesn’t really mean much anyway), she writes, “In the past, Maher has argued that “n****r” (or “n***a”) is no longer offensive, given the fact that the word has been reclaimed as a term of endearment by black people, especially in hip-hop music.”
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that such a hatefully destructive word is “no longer offensive,” I have to wonder what role, if any, the use of the word as a “term of endearment” plays in the word still existing, in a prominent sense in some cases.
That was a question some of my ninth grade female students of color approached me about last week. They believed it acceptable to be used within a cultural group as a friendly term because it was their word, they owned it. I questioned how a word of oppression and degradation can adopt a prideful connotation. At the same time, I respected their opinions although I disagreed vehemently with it.
One of the girls contended that the use of the word in the Black community was a means of reclaiming the word and therefore usurping the power of the original possessor of the word.
Ice Cube echoed this sentiment to Maher, “You can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not going to let that happen again. I know it’s in the lexicon, you’ve heard people talking. But that’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.”
I can never pretend to know what it feels like to be hated for the color of my skin. And I certainly do not know what it feels like to have a word of disgust, shame, abhorrence follow you around like a stalker ready to reveal himself at any moment.
However, I cannot support an us v. them mentality because it does not promote learning about what’s unfamiliar to us, better understanding it, and embracing it. No, us v. them promotes isolation. Obdurately clinging to principle or tuning out the conversation entirely is not progressive; it’s bitter and spiteful.
That same feeling can be heard in the text Dyson’s son sent him regarding Maher’s level of comfort: “I know white-boys like that who get a pass who earn a pass from the work they put in, but the coolest, most honorable white boys are the ones who choose not to act on that pass because they understand the history, pain, and insensitivity behind the use of the N-word.”
White-boys? White-boys?!?! I’m not even going to attempt to argue if the roles were reversed here for fear of being branded as a bigot and/or racially insensitive, but here’s the honest truth:
Whether the word has an -a or an -er suffix, whether it’s uttered by Ice Cube or Bill Maher, whether Ol’ Dirty Bastard says it or Michael Richards says it, whether a rapper or a preacher, a white or a black, a cop or a criminal, it doesn’t have a genial connotation; it has a loathsome one as biting as the master’s whip.
I don’t have any illusions about the privilege I myself have grown up in. I’ve never been the victim of whispers or askance looks – outside of the gossips at my job who have nothing better to do – I’ve never been assumed to be guilty by appearance, I’ve never been thought to be angry or opinionated or ignorant or savage based on the color of my skin. And I’m thankful for it, not apologetic.
Yet, I know others have – too many others with whom I try my best to empathize – but the double standard with slurs must end so a dialogue can begin – not a Bill Maher apology validation fest, but a real discussion about deconstructing the us v. them paradigm and working towards just us.
How’s that for some real talk?