Everyone Wants to be the Have-Nots

Watching the Dave Chappelle show this week, I had a very interesting conversation with a supposedly enlightened fellow UVM student. We both agreed that the show was fantastic (I think Chappelle has potential to be the next Richard Pryor), but my friend made the comment that due to its proliferation in not only the Chappelle show, but also much of Black popular culture, it’s now OK to use the “n-word”, if the g-e-r ending removed for the more hip g-g-a ending.

His argument was that society has become desensitized to the word. One hears it every day, and as Black people have accepted it for themselves, it’s ok for white kids in Vermont to use it as well. This is a very dangerous assumption.

As I tried to explain to my friend (who by all accounts is a very left-wing, socially conscious person), for African American people to co-opt a word that has been used to dehumanize them for four hundred years is a form of linguistic empowerment, using the tools of the enemy against them. For Tupac Shakur, this meant the word would now mean Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished.

For white people to use the term n—-, either towards African American friends, or towards other Whites, is fundamentally racist and ignorant. To ignore the responsibility of being the most privileged group in a society, and the fact that white men are privileged as a result of the suffering of others, is incredibly dangerous, because when we start to ignore the inherent racism in our society, it can only become more internalized, and more rooted in the psyche of all Americans.

In some ways, it could be argued that a systematic judicial lynching process is more dangerous than that of the Klan, because at least if someone is overt about their intentions you can fight against them easier.

We have reached a point in our society when people can argue that: “Slavery was like over a hundred years ago dude. I didn’t have anything to do with it, my family didn’t have anything to do about it, and I don’t feel in the least bit responsible”

This is of course totally wrong. The ills of slavery, and America’s deeply rooted systematic racism can be seen today alive and well. Even an introductory examination of our prison system can tell you that. Due to the lack of overt racism, and the explosion of subtle racism following the civil rights movement, American prejudice has fled underground. When white people use the n-word, and try to mimic, idolize, or poke fun at African Americans, it continues stereotypes that we may ignore, but that have not left our culture’s subconscious. The use of such derogatory terms by minority groups, such as homosexuals referring to one another as “queers”, can be an empowering force for that group. It reduces the ability of the oppressor to use that term against them with as much potency, and puts the word squarely in the hands of those who were oppressed by it. This does not make it ok for anyone within the dominant culture, however hip they feel themselves to be, to use the term.

This discussion was one of the first times I have heard a white person freely use the term n—-. Since then, upon bringing up the conversation to other people, I have heard a surprising amount of agreement with my misguided acquaintance.

Discussing my desire to write this piece to one of my friends, he got rather excited and started throwing the word around the room like it was the most fun he’d had in quite a while. He called me his n—-, he called his dog his n—-, and he said that it was ok, because it has become part of our common vernacular. Explaining that the word carries with it a legacy of the worst and longest genocide in world history (Between seventy and one hundred million Africans were exported from Africa. The Diaspora today is made up of about thirty million people. That means that between forty and seventy million people were tortured, starved, lynched, and worked to death in our lovely land of the free), and perhaps more discretion should be used in its application, my friend made the excuse that the word has become so diluted that it is silly to apply the legacy of slavery to it.

Hence, being Jewish, he argued it is very different from, making an Adolf Hitler joke, for example, which he agreed would not be very funny at all. I would challenge any White male who thinks its clever to refer to other people, themselves, or even an inanimate object as a n—- to take a Jet Blue flight to Newark, New Jersey, and try out that sort of behavior. Just because we’re secluded from the rest of the country in Vermont, and you may not directly offend someone with your language (in none of the discussions leading up to this piece were their African Americans in the room when people made these arguments), does not make it acceptable, in fact it makes it worse.