Monday, August 16, 2010


Among the goings-on last week while I was in Erie was Laura Schlessinger’s “N-word”-laced rant to a caller on her radio show.

Delighted as I would be by the possibility (remote, alas) that this flap could end this twit’s Reign of Ignorance on the public airwaves, all she was really doing was repeating an incredibly tired whiny-white-people gripe: Black people can use the N-word to their heart's content, but get mad when white people use it. God, another example of the horrible unfairness of black people toward white people.

Here’s the thing: I’m not a very smart person. I don’t write about partisan political & social issues here all that much, because I’m often not sure exactly where I stand, & even when I do have strong opinions, I usually feel that there are people far better informed to argue them. So I tend to stick to monster movies & baseball & departed character actors.

But there are a handful of issues, of varying importance, that seem enough like no-brainers that I’m willing to weigh in on them: the death penalty, SB 1070, same-sex marriage, gays in the military & the legalization of marijuana are examples. The N-word thing, too, seems sufficiently not like rocket science.


First of all, let’s dispense with a couple of false premises:

False Premise One: White people somehow aren’t “allowed” to use the N-word. Sure we are. As far as I know (correct me if I’m wrong) there’s no law in this country against anyone using that word. A couple of America's greatest, most soul-stirring works of literature, Huckleberry Finn being only the most obvious example, hinge on the use of that word by white people. So does one of the funniest American movie comedies, Blazing Saddles. True, there may be some institutional “speech codes” which prohibit it, say, on college campuses or at businesses, but while I think such measures misguided, they’re rules, not laws, & in any case they don’t only apply to white people.

Lots & lots of white people use that word many times a day without the slightest threat to their liberty or livelihood. Laura Schlessinger can say it repeatedly on the radio. There may be consequences for doing so (I doubt there will be long-term economic consequences for Schlessinger), but the word isn’t censored.

False Premise Two: Black people don’t mind it when other black people use that word. In truth, some black people don’t mind it. Plenty do. It’s probably true that many of the black people that don’t care to hear anyone at all use that word like it less when white people use it than when black people do…but then again, maybe not. Maybe they don’t like hearing other black people validating its use. Even Richard Pryor claimed an epiphany on the point, & publicly forsook the word.

After all that, however, there’s no denying that there are plenty of black folks who, not bothered in particular by hearing a comedian or a rapper or even their friends toss that word around casually, would bristle with anger & hurt if they heard a white person use it in virtually any context at all. Why is that? Schlessinger calls it “very confusing.”

Is it really all that confusing? Black people tend to hate hearing white people use that word because, well, we’re white, & that makes our use of it…well, rude. That word has been used by white people for centuries to designate black people as subhuman, inferior, & that’s still, on the whole, what white people use it for. White people occasionally want to use it to prove that we’re cool enough & accepted enough by black people to do so—a former employer of mine, certainly no racist, once made that mistake publicly. It’s socially inappropriate to use that word for the same reason that you normally wouldn’t, say, use the word “motherfucker” in front of your friend’s grandmother. It’s just not cool.

So why are black people “allowed” to use the word with at least some degree of social impunity? Well, think of it this way: In the act of making love to his wife, Laura Schlessinger’s husband might use a variety of coarse terms as endearments—he might call her, say, a “sweet little whore” or something like that. In the context of their shared intimacy, this might be entirely acceptable; she might even like it. This would not, however, make it appropriate for me to use that phrase as a casual form of address when meeting her.

Why, finally, is the N-word so often cited as if it were the only slur with this sort of charge to it? Try going into a Knights of Columbus meeting & throwing around the G-word or the D-word or the W-word & see what kind of response you get. John Leguizamo titled one of his performance pieces Spic-O-Rama, but does anyone think that this makes that epithet acceptable for any speaker? Why do many whites seem to find the disapproval of their use of the N-word such a particular hardship?

I used to think that it was simply the reflexive whining of a dominant class about giving up even an entirely theoretical privilege. It’s only in the last two years, since the reaction to the current President’s complexion—only to his complexion, alas; the old-white-guy policies that he so far seems intent on perpetuating couldn't provoke it—that it’s occurred to me that it may be more than that: Many white people really want that word back. They want to use that word really fucking badly. They hear it flying from the lips of HBO comics or rappers & their hearts throb with envy; they long to fling it out, at the President, & at all the other dark-skinned people they see interfering with how they think the country should look.

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