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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Q is for Questionable Content

In the comments to a blogpost back in September, Andrew Bechard suggested that I write more about race. He had all sorts of good reasons and particular examples. Here's the thing: I find conversations about race exhausting. It's not that I think they aren't important and necessary, or that I don't engage in the topic occasionally. It's merely that talking about race often becomes either incendiary (So-and-so is playing "the race card", whatever that means) or trivialized (the purported "beer summit") or dismissive ("Race is just a social construct, so if we just stop talking about race, racism will just go away.")

But Andrew did ask one specific question that I WILL (finally) answer, and without ever using the word in question. "I, for one, am very curious to hear your views on why you won't use the 'N word' when I regularly overhear other black folks using it around Albany."

OK, here's the short answer: I don't like the word, so I don't use it.

Here's the slightly longer answer: I think it is hugely a matter of age. People, both black and white, of my generation, born in the 1950s, or earlier, were taught quite clearly that it was not appropriate word for right-minded person to use, certainly to use casually in the manner to which Andrew refers. That's why when Bill Cosby received the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor recently, he requested no profanity or the casual use of the N-word; he didn't like it. The NAACP held a funeral for the N-word at its annual conference in the summer of 2007. The use of the phrase by Bethlehem Police Chief Louis Corsi - the town of Bethlehem ins in Albany County, NY - got in him into understandable trouble.

For me, part of my antipathy towards the word comes from the circumstances in which I have been called the N-word. It was almost never face-to-face but rather by person or persons in a moving automobile or truck while I was walking or riding my bicycle. this includes more than a few times in Albany, though, to be fair, not in this century, to the best of my recollection.

Now there's a whole school of thought that if one claims a word, it loses its power. That seems to be the philosophy, not only for some blacks, but women and gays as well. That's fine for them, but it doesn't mean that I'll start using the words. I know people of Polish extraction who use a term considered a slur in talking about themselves, but I've never considered it an invitation for me to use it.

I recall quite distinctly that about 15 years ago, I was in my previous church, when one or two black kids were using the N-word in the church hallway. I said, "Don't use that word here." At which point, the (white) pastor came on the scene. One of the young men started to argue with me. And I said, in my best stern voice, "Don't use that word in HERE," and they relented. The pastor, who is about a decade older than I, was on the same page in this case.

There is a book out there by Professor Randall Kennedy, with the N-word as the title. The subtitle is The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word and that sounds about right. That book and its author, incidentally, were not without controversy.

That said, I would oppose the banning of a book such as Huckleberry Finn merely because it uses the N-word. (I'm really curious what Bill Cosby, who got the Twain award, thinks of this Twain book.) The Irish Repertory Theatre, an Off-Broadway troupe, is putting on an uncensored production of The Emperor Jones, a 1920 one-act play by Eugene O'Neill, with the N-word "flung around with alarming abandon"; I can see the value in doing the production as written.

I've also found any number of songs in my record collection that use the word. Thing is, it seemed to be making a point, rather than be a casual comment. Examples include:
Don't Call Me N*****, Whitety - Sly and the Family
If There's A hell Below, we're all gonna Go - Curtis Mayfield
Woman Is the N***** of the World - John Lennon
Living For the City (album version) - Stevie Wonder

When I saw Elvis Costello sing Oliver's Army last year, I swear he swallowed the N-word in favor of "one more white nah-gah".

So, Andrew: I don't use the N-word because...I just don't.



Sylvia K said...

Excellent post, Roger! It's never been a word I could or ever wanted to use even though I grew up in Texas where it was flung around with abandon. It embarrassed me even as a "white" child that people could use the word in such a frequently profane way. Later, I married an African American, had four children. Fortunately, they grew up in Montana where it was ok to be black, just not Native American. So, every area seems to have its own group of people to look down on. Wonder if the day will ever come when we don't use people's race or color as an insult??? I hope so!

Have a great day!


RuneE said...

If someone feels that a word (or whatever) is an insult to him/her, than it is. It is as simple as that.

photowannabe said...

Never could and never would use that word. I just don't understand slurs anyway.
I think Rune says it best in his comment.
I really appreciate your posting this post. Very thought provoking.

Carol said...

Well, Roger, I didn't expect this for Q day! I also think conversations about race are exhausting. I don't use that particular word because it is demeaning. I also don't use other labels that are meant to degrade people by reason of religion or nationality etc. I think the real question is, why DO people use them.

Rinkly Rimes said...

It's not a word I'd ever use but I don't understand how a word can hurt so. Here, in Australia, I am called a 'Pom'. (There are also illusions to the fact that British immigrants never wash!) I don't mind in the least being called a Pom even though it's an insult. Maybe it's because I don't mind that it doesn't matter!

anthonynorth said...

Such words are all but banished in the UK today, and rightly so. I do disagree with the idea of the word being taken out of previous literature, though. We are making the past dishonest by doing so.

jabblog said...

Any name or word used with insult intended is insufferable. I understand that there was no racial prejudice against 'blacks' in UK until WW2 when the discrimination against them was observed in the US army in troops posted to GB. Personally, I have never understood racialism - why pillory people because of their colour/religion/upbringing (lack of) education? Might as well declaim against folks with curly hair or blue eyes or left-handedness.Too simplistic no doubt . . .

Joy said...

Sad that the word has not got archaic next to it in the dictionary.
Dick Gregory's autobiography used the word as his book title, of course this was the 60s when he was fighting prejudice, and as he said a system where a man can destroy another with a word. Hopefully we have reached a time when that is not possible.

Gel said...

Superb post. I LOVE your "short answer." That can apply to any word. It's our freedom of speech. Oh, do I get asked similar questions regarding my ethnicity. I think your reflections and observations about time period, age, and personal preference are very important instead of lumping all people of a certain shared "whatever" being viewed or assumed to use certain words.

I'm not African American, but I am a member of a minority group (where I will not use certain words, although in literature, theatre, or what not is an entirely different case than casual converstation.) I am sensitive and try to be respectful of others' desires, not matter what culture. It's our choice!

That said, my upbringing also taught me that the "N" word was cruel, debasing, and derogatory. I'm glad you are not for book banning based on this word! (I hope not for any words.) Oh, and I saw Bill Cosby live, a gift to my husband years ago; what a treat!)

Tumblewords: said...

Excellent post - makes me wonder about humans. Suddenly, a Q word comes to mind - and now I wonder even more. Well written.

magiceye said...

wonderful post! i also hope that a day comes when nobody is racially profiled

Paula Scott said...

Brilliant dissertation. I tend to agree with you.
I don't even like the word black. I don't even care for the distinction of African American. Why? Because all of these terms refer to the person first by race. I would like to see that stop, please. No one refers to my by my race (although that is difficult since I can claim ancestors in 8 different countries).
We need to stop making any kind of race distinction in such a manner.
I love the points you brought up so eloquently and thoughtfully.

Irene said...

I think it's in bad taste to use derogatory labels. BAD

Spiderdama said...

Wonderful post!;-)

Ann said...

It is so hard these days as we have to be PC. I grew up in Borneo where we have many races, we had to be careful to to offend others. The Dayaks were headhunters, and if we uttered the H word, we could be in trouble. Now, they are more open, it was part of the heritage.

Thanks for visiting, I remember Mrs. brown, I didn't watch it, I don't usually watch movies unless it comes years later on TV.

I always remember my Dad telling," The sun never set in the british empire."

jay said...

What a great post!

I've always been a little bewildered by the heat produced by the 'N' word combined with the fact that black people seem to use it among themselves. Well, I still don't use it, and never have done - I'm of the generation which was taught that it was completely unacceptable, and I've never been into abusing people on the basis of their origin or looks, or for any other reason, come to that.

It's a shame to us all that some people were (and are still) so violent about their hatred of another section of society that the words they chose to use become taboo. As other commenters have pointed out, it's happened with other words too. The 'N' word is particularly curious to me though, because as I understand it, it's a simple corruption of a foreign word which means 'black'.

I don't have any problem with being called 'Whitey'. But what I would have a problem with, is if it were said with hatred in a threatening situation. And I guess that's the bottom line with the 'N' word - part of America's history includes the most horrendous examples of exactly that.

Rose said...

What a thought-provoking post, Roger; I am so glad you wrote this. The comments are equally provocative.

I grew up in the 50's and 60's when unfortunately the N-word was heard quite often. However, in my house we were taught not to use any words that could hurt other people, and that lesson has always stuck. I had trouble in the classroom, though, when teaching Huck Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. Some students needed an explanation first that the authors were merely being realistic for THAT time period. That being said, I couldn't read aloud passages from either book without changing the wording.

It's not the word, it's the history of hatred behind it. I hope for a time when such words are indeed archaic.

Q said...

I agree with your short answer!
Interesting Q post. Words can be hurtful even though they are just words. I do not understand the wisdom of hurting others.

hip chick said...

I can say that is one word I have never used or even tolerated in my presence. I don't like it either.

Amy said...

Very, very interesting post. It reminds me of my grandmother who I loved very much. She used to use the "N" word occasionally though not will ill intent. I'm proud to say though that when she used it for the first time in front of my two little girls, I admonished her and she never did it again. So I used to think it was a generational thing, but sadly, bad names and labels will probably always be with us. Again, the use of it tells me more about the person saying it than the subject.

Buenos Aires Photoblog said...

Great post! This word is not in my vocabulary either! It's sad that discrimination is still all around us in so many different forms. It is often very subliminal. Using the N-word or any other insulting word is the most obvious (verbal) form of discrimination. I believe that many people all over the world have experience of being discriminated. I fear, as long as there is man there will be discrimination. But this does not imply that we shouldn't try to get rid of it!

Dragonstar said...

Fine - quality - post Roger. I can't say I've never used the word, as it was the name of a particular colour over 50 years ago when I was a child, but it's never been a part of my vocabulary in any other sense.
Thanks for visiting.