Who Gets to Say It?
The Dr. Laura Schlessinger N-word flap once again highlights the Black community’s uneasy relationship with a depised word, and the double standard many Whites believe we promote.
Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans … Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (Daniel 1:3-4, 6-7, NRSV).
My secondary school teaching experience was brief but enlightening. I first entered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher in 1999. As a wide-eyed and eager teacher in a Southern California public school system, my life was filled with new experiences and a roomful of not-so-eager-to-learn students.
My days were full and eventful. I can remember one particular event on the school playground where my class was playing. Two young fifth-grade girls that were in my class ran up to me; they were visibly distraught and somewhat undone (both were African American). Trailing behind them was a young Armenian boy, also in my class. He appeared agitated, nervous, and somewhat defensive.
The girls told me that the Armenian boy said the N-word on the playground. The young man chimed in and said he was merely rapping the same song the young ladies were rapping — the latest hip-hop cut no doubt — and repeating the same words they said. One of the girls then said, “You’re not Black, so you don’t have a right to say that word.”
I was taken aback. This was 11 years ago. The N- word is now even more widely promoted in the public space in many rap songs and entertainment circles. Thrown out predominantly by some African American rappers and comedians, this term (epithet to many) has become public domain; however, does this give everyone the right to spew it out freely — essentially naming all of us like in the Daniel passage above?
Over the past several centuries, Black folks in America have been named and renamed — boy, colored, Negro, Afro American, Black, etc … The naming of self, as opposed to being named, has been and continues to be a sensitive issue. What one feels comfortable with being called depends on personal preference or perhaps it is informed by a generational context — would the 18th-century enslaved Africans in America refer to themselves as African American or, rather, African, Ghanaian, or Ashanti? What did Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prefer to be called?
The recent spate of public racial insensitivity has seemingly reached an all-time high. Not to be compared with the horrors of the American slave period or the legalized racial segregation of the18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, in a postmodern 21st century climate, racial sensitivity is becoming virtually extinct. Although thought to be somewhat curbed in light of America’s first African American president, prevalent attitudes suggests otherwise.
Discussion on race and racial insensitivity resurfaced once again a couple weeks ago on the Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio show. Schlessinger explicitly uttered the N-word 11 times when an upset African American female phoned in to ask advice concerning racially insensitive remarks made by her White husband’s family and friends. Schlessinger dismissively told the woman that she was being hypersensitive and that “when Black people say [the N-word], it’s affectionate.” Schlessinger told her caller that Black guys, like comedians on HBO, use the term all the time when referring to themselves. After an awkward exchange that found Schlessinger continually cutting off the caller, Schlessinger hung up!
The good Doc went on to say that if you’re too hypersensitive, and don’t have a sense of humor, then you should not marry outside your race. Dr. Laura seemed to suggest that she, too, should not be too hypersensitive when being racially demeaned as a Jewish woman — well we know where this argument ends!
Despite Schlessinger’s apology the next day, it became clear that her bizarre comments were the result of a deep-seated resentment that probably stemmed from the growing national backlash against what many White Americans perceive as a double standard when it comes to race — i.e., “If Black people can say it, why can’t we?”
This same backlash could be detected in the infamous meltdown of comedian Michael Richards (formerly of Seinfield), who referred to hecklers in his audience as “n—–s,” or in the callous banter of shock jock Don Imus when he referred to the sistas on the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.” Where and how did these public figures get the idea that they could name us?
The unfortunate fact about this deplorable language is that much of its use is due to a cavalier and self-deprecating attitude among a minority of vocal and visible folks within the African American community. Some don’t think the N-word is negative until it is turned on them by someone who isn’t Black. The term is publicly used and promoted by rappers, opportunistic professors who peddle popular commentary disguised as scholarship, and a wide array of youth and self-adulating persons. These are the people who ensure that racial resentment and division will continue to fester. Most significantly, these persons attempt to re-name us all similar to the example seen in the Old Testament narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.
Dr. Laura Schelessinger photo by Phil Konstantin from Wikipedia.