Sunday, June 23, 2013

Three not-valid excuses for using the N-word

Goddamit, Paula Deen. I liked you. I really liked you. Granted, sometimes your giant, beyond-whitened smile made me afraid you might come through the television screen and devour my soul (I have this same fear of Suze Orman--I think it's the huge, unnaturally white teeth combined with what we psychiatrists call 'the crazy eye'). I'm also relatively certain every meal at your restaurant should come with a 50% off coupon for coronary bypass surgery, or at least a referral to an endocrinologist. BUT. You seemed 'sweet,' in absolutely the best Southern-fried sense, and your accent made you sound EXACTLY like my beloved high school history teacher, an aging Southern belle...and now it turns out you throw around the n-word like a float captain throws beads at Mardi Gras (flash your tits and I'll call you a disgusting racial slur!). Dammit, Paula. If I knew how to make gifs, there would be a big one right here of me sighing and shaking my head. Your father and I are so, so disappointed in you.

In the aftermath, I've heard a lot from people on both sides(?!?!) of the 'Do we damn Deen for her dastardly deed' issue (alliteration for the win!). The best, hands-down, reply for the 'It's 20-freaking-13, of course it's not OK to say that' camp, otherwise known as 'The Reasonable, Sane Human Beings' comes from the Daily Show. Go watch it. No, seriously, go watch it right now. I'll wait. BEST LINE: "You know what else is a lot of slaves? ONE, PAULA DEEN. ONE."

So, here are some excuses I've seen trotted out for use of racial slurs (the n-word in particular) in the last few days.

1) "But it's not directed at all Black people; it's just used to describe low-class, thuggish Black people." Variant: "It's not a race thing at all. It's just a word for no-good, low-class people with no manners." Disingenuous at best. Why have I never ever ever heard this word directed at anyone but African-Americans, then? Why is it used to describe Barack Obama, who as the Leader of the Free World (TM) is surely the farthest it is possible to be from "thuggish and low-class"? If that's the case, why is the phrase "uppity [n-word]" even a thing? Even if this were true (which, duh, it's not) the classist BS inherent in these 'explanations' would still be seriously problematic. Next.

2) "It's just a part of Southern culture," or "It's what things were like in the South when I/he/she was growing up." You really think bigotry deserves to be called a part of Southern culture? Like, not in 1865 or 1920 or even 1960, but today? I'm not saying racism isn't still an issue (it is, and not just in the South), but come the hell on. Sweet tea is part of Southern culture. Big porches, the Kentucky Derby, trees festooned with Spanish moss, saying "Oh, bless your heart" when you mean "Please go directly to Hell." Mint juleps. Kudzu. An almost genetic, visceral distrust of anyone with the last name Sherman. Do you really think so little of the South that you'd call vitriolic hatred part of the culture (and Southerners, do you think so little of yourselves)? As for the "When I was growing up..." argument: When my mother was growing up she didn't have air conditioning, a color TV, a computer, or an iPhone. She's adapted pretty well to having all those things, because people adapt as things change--if they want/need to. She also saw the integration of her high school and wasn't a total dick about it, because my mom is a basically good human being. Things change, kids. Get with the program.

3) Last, and perhaps most frustratingly frequent: "But they get to use that word!" 'They,' of course, referring to African-Americans. Oof. Where to begin--especially without 'whitesplaining.' So, there's still a robust debate among Black Studies scholars (and everyday folk) whether anyone should be using the n-word, or a derivative thereof, at all. Here's are pro and con articles that explain it better than I ever could. But to sum up, there's a difference between the word 'nigga' and the alternate, hard-r-at-the-end, much more venemous version. Two African-American guys saying hello to each other might say "Hey, nigga." This is worlds away (obviously? I hope it's obvious?) from a person from the historically dominant culture shouting the n-word at someone from a historically oppressed culture while driving by, or in a face-to-face interaction, or even (as in Deen's case) in a discussion with another member of the dominant culture.

 Reclaiming language is always tricky, and always makes some people uncomfortable. I know it's not exactly the same, but para ejemplo: I'm a woman who identifies as lesbian/queer and has no problem with either of those words. I have some LGBT friends who are fine with those words too, and we call each other 'queer' or even 'homo' sometimes, endearingly. However, if anyone I didn't know, gay or straight--or even some of my straight friends--called me 'homo,' I'd be righteously pissed. I have some friends who really don't like the word 'queer' because it has negative connotations to them, and so even though I kind of love it, I don't use it around them or to describe them. Similarly, I absolutely can't. stand. the word 'dyke,' even though I know some lesbians have 'reclaimed' it, and my friends know not to call me that.

Which is a circuitous way to say, just because an oppressed group is reclaiming certain words for use among themselves doesn't give you the right to use them. There's an entire, complicated social and historical context surrounding these words, and saying things like "But why do they get to say it then?" makes you look like an uninformed, entitled, petulant little kid who's pissed off someone else is getting to play with something you want. The truth is, that word is NOT YOUR TOY. You're not entitled to it, and you never were. Get over it and go play on the swings or something.

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