This past week, a video was leaked to FOX News that showed Jesse Jackson using “the n word”. The newsworthiness of this story, seemingly, is the hypocrisy of a black leader. Jesse Jackson previously criticized rap musicians for using “the n word” and called for a boycott of Seinfeld after one of the show’s characters used “the n word” in a comedy routine. The hypocrisy reported this past week was not that Jesse Jackson varies the level of punishment he feels necessary depending on whether you’re black or not, but his own use of “the n word” in a side comment.
I think it’s stupid for the major news media to dedicate time to discussing a word when we’re at war/occupation. I think it’s even more stupid that we can’t use the word being debated when discussing its use. This is the type of conversation that should be reserved for The View and my blog.
(ABC is stuck in the 20th century and won’t let me embed a video from its website. To see the clip referenced, go here and search for “Hot Topics 7/17: The N Word”.)
Sherri Shepherd exploded at the notion that the word should not be used by anyone in any circumstance. “Don’t tell me I can’t use that word!” she said before proceeding to explain why black people can tell non black people they cannot use the word. Apparently, Sherri can use it as a “term of endearment”, but Barbara Walters cannot because she is be incapable of using it in such a way. I maintain that the only people who get to make rules about language are members of the MLA.
Whoopi made an insightful comment: words gain meaning when we give them meaning. Unfortunately, the rest of her thought was bleeped by ABC. The network claimed that the opinions presented on The View were not those of the network, yet the network took a position in this debate. By bleeping Whoopi, ABC endorsed the opinion that the word cannot be used, even when its use is being debated intellectually (or not so intellectually in Sherri’s case).
Moments after bleeping Whoopi for 10 seconds, ABC allowed Elisabeth Hasselbeck to say, “You’re a dumb polack.” So… one racial slur is okay, but not the other? Does ABC not like Poland?
Words are just references to definitions and definitions are defined by culture — a culture that everyone gets to participate in regardless of ethnicity. If we focus on a word instead of its intended meaning, we won’t get anywhere. I can say “the f word” — fag — as a term of endearment to Arthur and feel special in our little clique. Or a female friend could burst into a party and say, “Hello my darling fags!” Or it could be yelled at us from a dumpy car full of Mexicans while we cross the street and feel insulted (it happened). I know what definition is being referenced in each scenario.
The words we use are indicative of the power relationship we feel to those we talk. I can use a paragraph or a single word to make you feel intimidated. However, it is your decision what to feel. Unlike physical offenses, being verbally offended is always a choice to be made. I can choose whether or not to be offended and accept the power dominance suggested by a word’s use.
All of which brings me to the idea of redefining words. Dan Savage, famous gay American sex advice columnist, wrote:
When I started writing this column in 1991, there was a debate raging in hellish homosexual circles about words like faggot. The idea was that if we used these words ourselves–Queer Nation, Dyke March, “Hey, Faggot” — straights couldn’t use them as hate words anymore. I chose “Hey, Faggot” as my salutation in joking reference to this lively debate about reclaiming hate words.
Dan did not say, “straights couldn’t use the word ever again.” I agree with Dan and this is how I feel about “the n word”. If those who were oppressed by a word want to reclaim the word, they should, but then they have to give the new definition back to the culture. Otherwise, they need to bury the word forever. If they reclaim and harbor the word, it’s maintaining a segregation, a power relationship of “us and them”, and it will always be divisive regardless who uses it.
Jesse Jackson used “the n word” as a black man speaking about some black people he felt were being ignored by a half black man more powerful than himself. That was the real story. I regret that the major news media missed a productive conversation about economics, opportunity, and the long term effects of discrimination.