There’s an interesting article on Salon this morning from Mary Elizabeth Williams on how white people shouldn’t use the N-word under any circumstance. Ignoring for a moment that most of MEW’s articles tend to be reactionary and designed to cause people to get upset over mundane things that they wouldn’t normally pay much attention to, the points she brings up are interesting, although I’m not sure I completely agree with all of them. I’ll let you read it for yourself and then decide. What I did want to discuss is my own particular perspective in the whole thing, coming from someone who would never use the word, mainly because I find it offensive, and even more important, that it rarely serves a purpose in any conversation I’ve ever had.
But I want to go back in time a bit to a friend of mine I had back in the days of my second visit to the college environment. I had decided to attend a community college (years after the Army AND West Point), cause I was interested in pursuing computer science as a future field. Anyway, my roommate at that time was a really cool guy named (for the sake of here) Bob. Bob was friendly, a good all around guy, and he was dating a woman that he was eventually going to end up marrying. He was also a pretty big guy, and he hung around with a bunch of other big guys, a few of them caucasians and a few of them of all different types of backgrounds, ethnicities and colors. But one thing that used to shock the crap out of me was that Bob used to refer to ALL of his friends as “my Nigga.” And they would refer to him in the same way. And none of them had a single problem with it.
I once asked Bob if that word didn’t bother him, and he looked at me like I was a moron. To him, the word had little contextual meaning as it did to me. It didn’t even have the same meaning to the African-American friends he had, because I couldn’t resist asking them either. They just didn’t grow up in an environment where they felt the typical socio-economic fabric that hangs over so many African-Americans of urban locales. They just smiled when I asked about it and didn’t have a negative thing to say whatseover.
No one thought of Bob as a racist, and not once was race even considered a part of the conversation.
But for me, I never could come around to using that word, even in the mixed company of where it was tossed around on a constant basis. I just didn’t feel comfortable saying it no matter how “welcome” the word was. And part of that is because I grew up in an environment where the word was used in very negative circumstances. The whites I grew up with around in the late 1960s and early 1970s were living through forced busing and the ramifications of the Civil Rights movement, so there was still a long of antagonism existing back then. I was fortunate in being integrated with very diverse populations as a child because I was dirt poor in an urban environment (Santa Monica, California). While many of my caucasian neighbors (meaning people who lived way out of my neighborhood of crack houses and prostitution dens) lived in isolated communities, I spent most of my free time at places like the Santa Monica Boys Club, which tended to cater to the poorest kids who couldn’t afford to spend time after school at the YMCA (where the richer kids hung out). So, I was exposed to all sorts of diversity that quickly educated me on what words were friendly and which words were taboo. As I was always a friendly sort of kid, I learned the ones that made friends (and made lots of friends) and discarded the words that turned friends into enemies.
Years later, in the presence of Bob and his friends, I was completely out of place because the conversations they were having were alien to me, so I did what I did when I was a kdi. I listened and avoided participating whenever I felt uncomfortable. There are certain words I’m not comfortable saying, and I’ve discovered that that is probably never going to change.
This is why I don’t feel concerned that there are rappers out there using the N-word in their music. I generally don’t sing to rap music, mainly because there’s not a lot of it that insterests me. The types that does generally doesn’t have profanity in it, or it’s impact is in a completely different direction. I do think that there are a lot of people who feel they have to emulate that type of behavior to be seen as cool, and fortunately, I’ve never been known to be someone who seeks out that type of status. Whenever I consider myself “cool”, there’s usually a sense of irony or sarcasm involved.
Which brings me back to that word. I don’t know why people feel such a need to use it. But unlike the professor mentioned in MEW’s article, I don’t care enough about the fact that others use it to feel slighted myself. Words do have power in some circumstances, but what MEW and people like her don’t often recognize is that they also lack power if people don’t subscribe to their doctrine. Whenever I hear the N-word, I don’t think “subversive”, “cool”, or even “outrageous.” I think “uneducated” and “limited in vocabulary”. But then, when writing a novel, there have been times when I have chosen the simple phrase rather than the more complicated one because the message was the medium, not the other way around. And in those cases, I guess my own jury is still out.