Who can say the n-word?

6 Oct

According to the Washington Post (10/03/11):

“In the early years of his political career, Rick Perry began hosting fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance.

‘Niggerhead,’ it read.

… When asked last week, Perry said the word on the rock is an ‘offensive name that has no place in the modern world.’

But how, when or whether he dealt with it when he was using the property is less clear and adds a dimension to the emerging biography of Perry, who quickly moved into the top tier of Republican presidential candidates when he entered the race in August” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/rick-perry-hunting-camp-controversy-what-you-need-to-know/2011/10/03/gIQANl3oIL_story.html).

The controversy took a familiar turn on ABC’s The View, when Whoopi Goldberg articulated the full name “Niggerhead” in reporting the story (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PZZc2tWCL9c). Barbara Walters then picked up on Goldberg’s  reflection that it’s hard to know what you’re supposed to say (are you supposed to say “N-word-head” because you’re never supposed to say “the n-word”?)  Their co-host Sherri Shepherd chimed in, objecting to Walters saying “Niggerhead” even for reporting purposes, explaining, “There’s a difference between the way you [Barbara] and Whoopi say it.” (Note: I don’t think Goldberg or Shepherd identified as black during this segment. They may have previously, and I believe the majority of their viewers identify them as black.) 

Walters then asked, “Is it because I’m white that I shouldn’t use the word?” And Shepherd agreed.

This question of who can say the n-word is not just for daytime TV. There’s probably a study somewhere citing this debate as part of the normative identity development of adolescent boys in the US. Who “gets” to say the n-word is how they more often put this question of (in their minds) free speech.

I’ve seen and heard the debate countless times: it is literally a black and white argument, with white boys usually leading the complaint: it’s not fair (it’s even racist) that they can’t say the n-word, while their black peers can.  

And what I tell them is: you can.

(Check to see if you just flinched.)

I tell them that, of course, they can use the n-word. If they can speak, then they can say it. No one can stop them. And as for the notion that people who belong to a group “get” to say things about that group that outsiders “don’t get” to say (as if the n-word is some kind of privilege or prize), the real question for kids is: are they willing to accept the consequences of what they say?

Are they willing to accept the impact it may have on someone of African-American heritage (or even someone of other heritage) for whom the word conjures hate and violence? Are they willing to accept the reflection on themselves–that saying the word may cause people to believe they’re racist? Are they willing to accept the repercussions of their choice: the anger, frustration and fear that others may express towards them in words or even actions?

While I respect the reasons we’ve taught people that you “can’t” say the n-word, I think the taboo has created a sort of forbidden fruit out of something that’s really rotten at its core.

Fundamentally, “getting” to say the n-word is all about accountability. And getting away with saying it doesn’t make it OK.

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