Thursday, July 12, 2007

Requiem for an Epithet

Earlier this week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) held a mock funeral for the "N-word" during the association's 98th annual convention. Detroit (Michigan) mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was quoted as saying, "Today, we're not just burying the n-word, we are taking it out of our spirit, we are taking it out of our minds. To bury the n-word, we gotta bury the pimps and the ho's and the hustlers. Let's bury all the nonsense that comes with this."

I strongly believe in the inalienable equality of all individuals and I celebrate the spirit of this gesture. By all means, let's bury the ideas and the symbols that hurt people or that lead some to feel less valued or worthy than others.

Racism or discrimination, in any form, is wrong. Period.

Anything that separates one type of person from another type is wrong and should be changed. We are individuals, not chattel or chaff that can be sorted from wheat.

Kilpatrick's remarks touch on such a separation, one I've wondered about for years. Folks like Michael Richards, Don Imus, and Mel Gibson are (quite properly) chastized for using certain words as epithets to denigrate others. Yet, comedians like Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Chris Rock, and others liberally sprinkle the n-word throughout their work and those choices are considered acceptable. It seems as if it's okay for an African American to use the n-word in any way that seems appropriate to the artist, but it's not okay for anyone else to try to use...or to try to empathize with the pain that comes from the use of...the term. At least, that's the way it seems from my point of view. Your mileage may vary.

Isn't it unfair for an African American to expect to use that particular word when others aren't allowed to use it? Isn't it possible that continued use of the term reinforces the very streotypes that such use claims to criticize?

This seems especially relevant when one realizes that the term is also used as a greeting between non-African Americans. (See definition 2 in the link.)

This secondary use appears, in part, to come from the lyrics of musicians and routines of comedians that use the word cavalierly. Because some use it so casually, the thinking goes, it's okay for everyone to use it casually.

I'm not saying there aren't artistic or scholarly uses for the word. I would, for example, never argue that it should be excised from historical appearances, such as the writings of Mark Twain, early Looney Toon cartoons, or even certain mystery novels. At this point in our history, we have come to understand the cruelty of this term and we have to accept the evolution of that understanding. If we do not understand how we came to realize the fitness of this idea, we risk losing the understanding of why this idea has become true for us, an understanding that has come dearly for some.

Racism, discrimination, and oppression are, in any form, wrong.

Even when it comes from those most hurt by the term.

We've let go of many cultural references that we now understand to be out of place or no longer appropriate, such as Uncle Tom, Sambo (background), Jim Crow, Stepin Fetchit, and other outdated stereotypes, it's time to let this particular word go.

Photo Credit: Kristin Smith


Blogger Whitesnake said...

I was going to say something but I am afraid i may upset someone if I use certain words, but then I might upset someone for not saying what I want. I feel oppressed and denied my right to say what I would like in, the way I would like, when I would like and in the manner i like.

Maybe I should just shut up !

1:51 AM  
Blogger giggles said...

I understand why African Americans feel the right to use the N word. There is a cost, the cost of oppression that buys the right to use it with those who have felt that same subjugation! It runs along the lines of “I can say whatever I want about my mama, but you better not say anything about her.” I have listened to pundits speaking on this issue. Although I disagree with the use of it, I understand it’s an intimate code amongst those suffering discrimination. This is a very touchy subject. I surmise the older generations have a different association with the word than younger generations who have also been exposed to inequity. The older generations want the word buried along with the memories attached to its domination and all other insolent implication. Talking to any person of ethnicity you will see forms of discrimination still prevalent in the new millennium! I love art with ethnic faces, can I find them anywhere? Not usually, it’s very rare! Imagine being a child with no mirror image of your face present in art! I grew up not even realizing the four ethnic pictures on the wall of our home signifying tolerance! Just a different perspective! Great post!

Peace Giggles

8:09 PM  
Blogger Jane Poe (aka Deborah) said...

Excellent post my dear ... you've really touched on some fine points here ... this is an interesting issue for people of all races and cultures -- what do we want to stand up for? what do we want to be? who are we?

Labels, either given or self-actualized can both be damaging to those who label and those who are labeled.

Great food for thought! xx, JP

11:12 PM  

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