That NEW Adage

A pressure-relief valve about God, and just about everything else.

A Few Words About the WORD…


Last week, on that feminist staple, “The View,” a big dust-up broke out about the use of THE “N” WORD. The thick-tongued titan of civil rights, Jesse Jackson was caught saying it in an off-air moment. The black cast members of the show were trying to explain to the white ones why there is an acceptable double standard in the usage of that fully loaded word.

Off the subject, are we still looking to Jesse for guidance? For what to do or NOT to do? That’s like me trying to get my butter from the milkman. I was through with him when he went on Bill Maher’s show and talked about “the mythology” of the Genesis account of creation!

I have a few hairs I have to wax off my chest…

Who is really surprised that some — many — most — black folk use it in their speech? Is it really that , “OMG! I can’t believe the Right Reverend would stoop to say such a vile thing!”? Or is it that, “If HE says it, why does the world stop when someone white says it?”

I posit that it is the latter. By a landslide.

The truth — that only God (and I) know — is that many white folk use the word, too. At the very  least all those white kids who buy up all the hip-hop can’t help but use it! More on that later. White folk, represented here by Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Barbara Walters, imply, “If YOU use it, why can’t I?”

I will tell you why, and in the foregone words of my parents, “Don’ asss me no moe!” I’m tired of this!:

The reason you can’t say that word is the same reason you can’t come into MY house and call My kid ugly. (My kids ain’t ugly!) The reason is that there are certain things that can be said in certain environments by certain people at certain times that are unacceptable for others to say. That’s the way it is, and you know it! There are certain things I would say to my own that YOU had better not say. They are the benefits of having a shared experience. People who have been through the same stuff have a fraternal bond that anyone outside that group cannot share. Football players, holocaust survivors, Italians… That is life.

Listen, people are crude. All of us. That’s why we need a Jesus. We do and say rough things. Two old friends greeting each other after a long separation; “Hey! Howya doin, ya tub a’ lard?!? Who’s ya’ barber? God?” Guys talk to each other like that when they are close and are sure of the affection of the other guy. That is key!

Women regularly use the infamous “B” word, a word almost as loaded as that other one. I used to work for the blues singer, Denise LaSalle. She used the word in reference to her self on her album cover. But had I called her that (I love her, but she used to make me really angry when we would stop for her to eat an hour away from home on a twelve hour trip!), I’d have been fired like a Saturday Night Special! Like a cop’s gun in the ghetto. Too rough? I haven’t been what she is, and I haven’t suffered what she has. And I don’t sit and freekin’ long for the right to call her a female dog!

Women can call each other, “girl,” “honey,” and “sweetie” without issue. A man can’t. I’m cool with that.

There are disparaging terms for every racial group. Who sat and thought up these words? The popular ones? Ask yourself that one… And every racial group has within it people who regularly employ those terms in reference to each other. To NO offense! I have heard it, and so have you. I don’t cry about why I can’t use them.

It is funny that the most innocuous racial terms are the ones used in reference to white folk. Shoot, you can still hear them clear as day on Nick at Nite, for goodness sake! “The Jeffersons,” “All in the Family”… Incidentally, the word, “cracker” is NOT a reference to white folks’ skin color. It refers to the fact that in slavery, the white man was the “whip cracker.” Dig that! That makes it a whole ‘nother kind of slur.

When I hear Barbara Walters ask why she can’t say the word, I ask myself why she would want to.

This is what black people have to do; When we meet white people, we have to figure out whether they are genuine or not. When we get overlooked in a store, the added element of, “I wonder if it is ’cause I’m black, or are they just absent-minded” always factors in. We have to add an extra step to most of our inter-racial interminglings. That’s the way it is. And when white folk whine about why “the blacks get to say it and we can’t,” it makes our Spidey Sense tingle. It makes us wonder “You mean, ‘the blacks get to say it, and we can’t in public’, right?”

And when I hear Mrs. Hasselbeck suggest that no one be allowed to use it, I say that if you are saying that on the basis that all crude speech is wrong on a Christian level, I agree. But if you are saying that I cannot, by your edict, refer to myself or a member of my “family” in a certain way, you are out of your yard and need to hit the brakes. Black folk didn’t invent the word anyway. I submit that it is not wise to go around trying to tell those at the bottom of the pile what they can and cannot say.

To be honest, that word is a rope that pulls every bit of centuries of shed blood, broken families, hacked-off limbs, raped women, forced labor, disconnected heritage, “Christian” hypocrisy, castrated bucks, burned and lynched bodies, subjugation, segregation, disenfranchisement, misrepresentation, beating, terrorism, third class education, and intimidation with it, and rather than deal with it, many would simply wish it away than hear it.

White people, in spite of the rantings of The Angry White Man, have all power — Obama notwithstanding. And just as television makes the daddy the buffoon and comedians make endless jokes about politcians, the person on top has — or should have — thicker skin due to having all the control and all the privilege. Black folk have pig knuckles and chitlins ’cause that was all that was left. All the little people have is a joke or two. Do you have to say the word, too?

It is the same reason that it is more acceptable to mock a white person’s vocal inflection than a black, asian, or Mexican’s way of speaking. They have more likely had the benefit of a high-caliber education. It is hard to slur someone who has all the stuff!

And all that stuff about “we took the pain out of the word” is a bunch of Bug Snot! (Can we still say bug snot? ) That word still has pain. Black folk never had a meeting and said, “How can we take the pain out of that word? I know! Let’s take it from white folks and use it among ourselves all the time and on records and in various media, and soon it won’t hurt no more and white folks will have no power!” The fact is that people often say rough things. That is why folks aways want to learn the curse words when visiting a foreign-language-speaking country. The “N” word is no different. There was no conscious effort to take the sting from the word.

The entertainers and rappers I her parroting this nonsense make me as angry as the folk who want to say it do! It is a cop- out. A one-legged rationalization! (No offense to all the one-legged folk out there…) You say it because it is fun to cuss, and that is all. There is no artistic, scientific reason behind it. Quit trying to be DEEP! (Richard Pryor was a genius, I think. He took authentic black life, language and all, and made it political satire)

I am ashamed when I hear the word used around white folk. And with the devolution of hip-hop, we have critically injured ourselves artistically and are probably being laughed at by many of those who hear it. I am a musician, and I think that hip-hop is very close to being the black face, Jim Crow minstrelry of the new millennium! Being a musician, I can say this without repercussion. I’m in the group…

A lot of times when black folk see other black folk engaging in embarrassing behavior (house shoes and rollers in the grocery store) that word is uttered in shame. “They makin’ it hard on the rest of us!”

A lot of the white folk who use it in secret will say that they only use it in reference to those who make trouble, King, Malcolm, Sharpton, Jackson, Ali, etc. In other words, those who holler when they get hit! In still other words, black folk they see!

Interesting dichotomy.

My kids will be taught not to use that word. But on the basis that God doesn’t accept crude speech. Not because it offends white people.

I wish the word didn’t exist. I wish rappers would stop using it. I wish that I didn’t KNOW that some of my neighbors mutter it when they see me outside. But I also wish that leaves wouldn’t die and that milk didn’t turn sour.

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July 22, 2008 - Posted by | Barbara Walters, Black Life, Celebrity, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, Entertainment, Race, Racial Reconciliation, Racism, Rant, The N Word, The View, Whoopi Goldberg

18 Comments »

  1. *sigh* Yes, as Christians we have a whole different set of considerations. But I gotta say….

    While I think it might be true TO SOME EXTENT that words only have the power we give them, I agree with your assessment of bug snot. I can’t wake up one day and decide that whenever I use the word blue, it really means yellow.

    What is offensive is a moveable line partly depending on culture and geography and history. There are words that are only mildly offensive in Europe that would make a person’s head spin here.

    I feel for the (white) kids whose friends are racially diverse, who listen to the same music, who are part of the same groups and subculture. I have heard of such a kid who after hearing the N word tossed around in a friendly way, did so himself and was later beat up for it (not by his friends, but by someone who overheard). Right or wrong, this kid now struggles with feelings of racism that he did not have before.

    I have heard talk of making use of the word illegal even in private use. Sorry, I can’t get on board with that. It’s a moral issue and you can’t legislate the human heart. All it would do is make the racists harder to see.

    Since I can trace my ancestry (yes I know, some people cannot) and I know that it includes German, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Swedish, Irish…and the list goes on: is it OK for me to making offensive remarks about those groups?

    Is it OK for a person to make observations/generalizations about an ethnic group not his own? Can I say that the diamond district in NYC is mostly run by Jews? or that most of the landscapers in my neighborhood are Latino? Can I make observations about cultural differences in music, food, dress or appearance? Can I make jokes about those observances?

    I don’t know how this relates but when I was first out on my own, in my first real job, I used to eat lunch with two other ladies. One of them was a black woman about my age who was planning her wedding. It was her conviction to use all African-American owned businesses… except for her dress, because the Italians were better at that. Now see, I think that’s funny. (My friends have always been ethnically diverse but this woman was different in that she taught me so much by her candor and willingness to speak openly without being unkind.)

    Loaded subject, Derrick. Nice handling. 🙂

    Comment by sara | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  2. Wow. So I take it that you are passionate on this issue….. 🙂 J/k.

    I agree with you that we (black and white) should not use the word becuase of God’s rules, not our own. But I also think it’s bigger than that.

    I have no desire to use it, and I do not. In my opinion based on the origin of the word and it’s usage throughout the recent history (USA is not that old), it’s destructive whether used among the black community, or by the white community. As is “cracker”, “spic”, and my personal favorite of all time “mulato” (I cringe just typing it).

    I despise the use of these words by any person of any color. They are not Christian words, they are not terms of endearment, not matter what anyone says. Using these words, to me, is like saying “with all do respect” before making crude momma jokes. “But I said with all do respect!!!”

    Brother I agree that it shouldn’t be used, but not just becuase God says it is cruel language. These words should not be used because they tear at the fabric of the human community. I’m not saying, “forget slavery, just chill man, it’s over.” I’m saying simply that those words are not, and never will be, terms of endearment or friendship. Those words encite hate from both communities, and should not be used by either.

    Keep on posting, Happy Birthday to your son, and peace.

    Comment by bob | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  3. Thanks, Bob and Sara! I wholeheartedly agree with the things you have said, and I appreciate you taking the time to try to understand my P.O.V.
    I wanted to address it without being offensive, because sometimes things just have to be said.

    Dealing with generalizations, Sara, is a burning tightrope. Sometimes cool, sometimes not. We have to decide, close our eyes and go for it sometimes, I think…

    Because of your two expressed opinions, I think I’ll be able to deal with whatever may come my way on this subject!
    Derrick.

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  4. You said:
    “When I hear Barbara Walters ask why she can’t say the word, I ask myself why she would want to.”

    You know, that’s exactly what I’ve always thought. If I feel the need to refer to someone by race, there are many terms I could use. I can’t imagine why I need to grab the worst one of the set. It’s not like the “n-word” and “African-American” are perfect synonyms.

    Comment by wickle | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  5. My sediments exactly!
    I don’t EVER use any of the slurs associated to any other race of people. And I don’t want to. I’m no angel, but that is just somehing I don’t do. Besides, it would seem to be gross hypocrisy and an indication of a vast distance from God to do so.
    Thanx, Wickle! Howz it going, by the way?

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  6. OK, but I’ve heard it used without regard to race. “Hey ______, where you been?” said to a variety of differently colored people. I’m not justifying or saying it isn’t crude or worse depending on intent, but it doesn’t always refer to race in the contexts I’ve witnessed.

    An interesting attempt at reclaiming/redeeming/re-defining the word is in a song written by a white woman named Patti Smith. Do you know who she is and the song I’m referring to? Punk rock is an acquired taste, but maybe you’ve heard of her? I don’t think she was successful in this attempt but I guess it was an interesting social statement at the time.

    Comment by sara | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  7. This is a very intriguing issue … and I mean that in a good way. I think if more folks had candid (and open) conversations with these types of issues then things could be better. But as Derrick said, most talk about these in quiet conversations. Four points:

    1. First of all – Derrick, nice music the other night. You are one talented and gifted dude.

    2. Many bible verses apply here … “Let no unwholesome talk ….”, “tight reign on your tongue”, etc..

    3. As Derrick says, I have heard many whites use the “N” word … always in a derogatory way and always around an all white crowd. Without even knowing him, my neighbor threw it out there one day as he talked about another neighbor who didn’t mow his lawn and was being foreclosed on his house (lazy “n”). It really took me off guard and while I didn’t reply the way I wanted to, I did call him out for using an inappropriate word.

    4. I had a really nice lady in my house the other day for a “pre-move inspection”. She way talking about some issues with a black employee (moving company) and even though she was saying nice things, every time she said the word “black” – she paused and then whispered it – even though we were in my house, the door closed, and only the two of us standing there. What was that all about?

    Bones

    Comment by Bones | July 23, 2008 | Reply

  8. Thanks, Marc! You always have such good stuff to say. Although there may be some out there who, just like Jesse, will be upset with you for exposing some known but unprovable truths.

    Thanx for the compliment, too! I appreciate that so many of you came out to support our efforts. My church is made up of “REAL” folks! Of ALL races. I’m so proud!

    When I get some audio or video to post, I’ll have to write about it…

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 23, 2008 | Reply

  9. Marc & Derrick, I’ve experienced that hushed voice thing too. One thing I find offensive is that when people make racist comments in my presence they are essentially saying that they assume I would agree – they’re assuming that because I am white, that I must be a racist too.

    I wrote about one experience here.

    http://breakingground.wordpress.com/2008/06/15/i-have-a-friend/

    Comment by sara | July 24, 2008 | Reply

  10. That is a good point, Sara. I have experienced that a lot as well. Folk will say something derogatory about whites assuming that my natural default position is to agree with them. Even people whom I don’t know. Sometimes I check them, sometimes, sadly, I don’t.

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  11. I am generally very careful to guard my tongue but I admit when I am around my close black friends & family we call each other the “N” word all the time. From kindergarten to college it has been a staple in the vocabulary of myself and many black friends and acquaintances. Strange thing is, regardless to the tone in which the word was used, it never felt harmful or offensive unless it’s used by a white person. Even when another black person called you that in a malicious tone it was the sentiment that got the reaction not the “N” word. They could have called you teddy bear in anger and it would garner the same reaction.
    I don’t know what to do with that. As a Christian my brain tells me that word should be eliminated from my vocabulary. But when I say it or hear it from another black person I don’t feel convicted to repent. Normally when I sin or do something to dishonor God I get a keen indication in my spirit that God is displeased. I never feel that when the “N” word is used by me or other African Americans.

    On another note, I do feel some kind of way when I say African American, Latino or Latin American then say “white” people. I sometimes feel I’m offending white people by calling them white. That word carries underlying negativity for me somehow. I hear double standards in it and it makes me cringe. What’s that about? (rhetorical, but feel free to comment).

    Comment by ricktrotter | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  12. P.S.
    I am not proud of this so don’t get the sense that I’m justifying the use of the word. I just wanted to throw another perspective in the conversation.

    Comment by ricktrotter | July 25, 2008 | Reply

  13. It’s funny what we call people or that we have to call people anything other than people at all. I’ve corrected overly zealous white people who have used the term African-American to refer to someone who was not American at all.

    “White” really does carry some baggage too, doesn’t it? I mean aside from being too all-inclusive. I imagine an accountant type (no offense to accountants, lol) wearing khakis and a button-down, speaking with a thick nerdy accent. They used to call that kind of person a “herb” where I grew up. Where did THAT word come from?

    I appreciate this conversation, both in content and tone.

    Comment by sara | July 26, 2008 | Reply

  14. Thans, Sara! I appreciate your participation in it.

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 26, 2008 | Reply

  15. Oh, yeah… and “African American” gets on my NERVES! We have defined and REdefined ourselves enough. “Black” was strong enough and definitive enough. We are marginalized by coming up with something new every thirty years, and whites are confused and don’t know WHAT to call us for fear of being offensive!
    The whole thing can come off as pretentious.

    Besides, everybody black in America is NOT an American.

    Oh… Here is what I was looking for.
    I am surely NO fan of John McWherter. (He is black, and I don’t think he likes it :-)) But he wrote an article which contains some points with which I agree. Here is an excerpt;

    Why I’m Black, Not African American

    Modern America is home now to millions of immigrants who were born in Africa. Their cultures and identities are split between Africa and the United States. They have last names like Onwughalu and Senkofa. They speak languages like Wolof, Twi, Yoruba and Hausa, and speak English with an accent. They were raised on African cuisine, music, dance and dress styles, customs and family dynamics. Their children often speak or at least understand their parents’ native language.

    Meanwhile, the special value of “Black” is that it carries the same potent combination of pride, remembrance and regret that “African American” was designed for. Think of what James Brown meant with “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” And then imagine: “Say it loud, I’m African American and I’m proud.”

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 26, 2008 | Reply

  16. I’ll try to keep this short … I pop around in response to many comments above:

    1. As my wife says (too often to me) regarding verbal conversation … it’s all about tone. Each of us can take the same word (or words) and make a completely different meaning out of them simply by changing the tone, context, or audience.

    2. The “n” word has a double standard … and that’s okay (historical context). I think many (whites) are more upset about the ‘double standard’ then they are the word itself. Except in a few movies and rap songs (which arguable DO NOT represent the majority of blacks), I have always heard the ‘n’ word used between blacks as a term of endearment or at least in a friendly or joking manner. In contrast, I have NEVER heard the same word used to express any positive aspect of a black person when used by a white. By the very nature of it’s origin, I’m not sure any white can use the word in any sort of positive way (historical context dictates otherwise).

    3. When it comes to “black” or “African American” (or any other quick descriptor), I think they are more important the less you know a person. Once you get to know someone, it seems like all of those generalized terms just don’t fit and are used less and less. For example – I don’t refer to Derrick or Rick as “black guys” in any convesation. I refer to them as ‘music friends’ who are very gifted in what they do – the color of our skin has nothing to do with our relationship. If you take this thought all the way to the extreme … if we (America) refer to a majority of the “other” race as either ‘black’ or ‘white’, then that tells me that we (as a whole) don’t have aimiable relationships with the other race. This is obviously a broad generalization but those that whisper “black” in private conversation clearly don’t know any blacks on a personal level. It’s a dead giveaway.

    4. As far as being called “white”, I have never felt any sort of “mean-ness” out of that word. I am bald, lanky, and white … so calling me any of those words doesn’t hurt my feelings. Twist the tone a bit and I’m sure they could be mean in the right context; but unlike the ‘n’ word none of these terms have any history for me or for the country.

    5. For me, the word “boy” has more of a negative sting. Quickly – I used to race sailboats with an older priveledged white male of both wealth and affluence (county district attorney). On low wind nights when sailing was more like drifting, he used to tell stories of these ‘boys’ in his courtroom. I was a naive teenager and honestly thought he meant young males … I eventually learned what he really meant when he refered to one of the ‘boys’ as a “stupid n…..”. To this day, I can’t stand that word and don’t even call my son ‘boy’; I call him “little man” instead. It doesn’t bother me when others use that word b/c it doesn’t have the same history and meaning to them.

    6. In the end, to me it’s not about the word or words – it’s about the tone, context, and the audience. Some words come with baggage on different levels – words that only mean good/bad things within a group (family, friends, school-mates, city, state, country, etc..). I think our challenge is to recognize which words are from which group, and use them accordingly. As a white guy, the ‘n’ word has no other context then it’s historical one in this country regardless of how much I don’t want it to – and therefore regardless of the tone or audience, for me to use the word is inappropriate. For a black to use the word doesn’t necessarily hold the same context; whether that in and of itself makes the word appropriate is another discussion for another day.

    Bones

    Comment by Bones | July 27, 2008 | Reply

  17. Marc, this was excellent! I don’t know that there is much more to say.

    Forgive me for highlighting certain parts, but I particularly agree with those.

    I am not advocating use of the word either, only that it is not for the Hasselbecks and Hannitys of the world to mandate that a particular group with which she has no shared history or bond not speak to each other by certain terms because they offend HER. Hers is an argument with a faulty premise.

    Just as I cannot tell homosexuals to stop calling each other the ‘f’ word because it hurts MY feelings to hear them degrading each other. They certainly DO(!), but not with the word!

    Apparently there was more to say…

    Comment by maxdaddy | July 27, 2008 | Reply

  18. What strikes me is that in addition to “History” with a capital H, our own personal histories influence the way we view things. I personally can’t stand being referred to as a “girl” but I know other women who have no problem with it.

    Comment by sara | July 28, 2008 | Reply


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