Jesse Jackson was caught on tape offering to castrate Obama for “talking down” to black folks and telling “n*gg*ers” how to behave. On The View, Whoopi Goldberg and Elisabeth Hasselbeck sparred over the racial slur, with Whoopi arguing that blacks can use the word while whites can’t. Ta-Nehisi Coates, speaks into the issue with well-appreciated nuance and good sense. And so, I tried really hard to think about where I stand with it all.
It is true that there is some nuance in which calling another black person “n*gg*r” is indeed a sign of affection. That is – I can conceptualize it. I can conceptualize it in a humorous content (the way the word “fool” can be used in a teasing, affectionate way), and I have heard and understood brothers talking to one another that way. And because I recognize the inflection, I don’t flinch or even blink when someone uses it. I don’t have any personal affectionate usages of the word – don’t hang hard enough to have acquired the street sense of the word. But I get it.
For white folks who don’t it’s easy enough to explain. There is a clear difference – CLEAR difference, between two women calling each other “b*tch* affectionately, and a man doing it. Unless that man knows that woman REALLY well, and there’s a high degree of trust between them, under no circumstances will the term be well received. (BTW, Elisabeth Hasselbeck was crying over the potential use of the words in front of children. I think that the majority of us, unless we are heavy on the street cred, won’t use coarse language in front of children, so I’d like to take that argument off the table. If we don’t use coarse language in front of children but do use coarse language – the sense of the word n*gg*er and b*tch that I’m using falls in the exact same category.)
So it seems very clear to me that this argument that no one can ever use these words EVER just because white people (or conversely, men) can’t use these words willy nilly is just silly – it’s the ‘reverse discrimination’ argument run amok. We all can conceptualize circumstances in which it simply isn’t an outrage to use the words – and no amount of whining from the dominant culture on the issue is going to change this fact.
BUT… as a Baha’i, it occurs to me that we are missing the point if we leave it to purely situational ethics. Religion purports to give guidance on right and wrong that transcends situational ethics, and it occurs to me that this is one of those times when consulting the scripture might not be a bad idea. The thing is – it troubled me. It troubles me to see certain white folks, who likely call blacks “n*gg*r” all the time, complaining that they can’t do it openly. Those type of folks – you just KNOW that they aren’t being affectionate in their usage. And, here was Jesse Jackson – also CLEARLY not being affectionate in his usage. He’s calling black folks names – and he wants to be able to do it under his breath, the same way racist white* people do, while complaining that Obama wants to encourage improvement for blacks. And – he gets a bye on the subject… because he’s black, and because we all know – we black folk ALL know, just how prevalent it is in the black community for some of us to call others of us the “n” word in a less than affectionate manner. We on’t like it when whites do it, because there’s an inherent threat of an overwhelming prejudice – but we fail to notice the inherent threat of internalized self-loathing – buying into the frame that says that black people ARE n*gg*rs, or for that matter, that women ARE b*tches.
As I thought this through – I called to mind a central teaching of the Baha’i Faith – that we are created noble, and that it is we ourselves who make ourselves less than that. The Hidden Words from the Arabic say:
22. O SON OF SPIRIT!
Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.
(Baha’u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)
And that seems to be the crux whereupon this argument stops, at least for me. The term “b*tch” isn’t a noble title for a woman, nor is the term “n*gg*r” a noble one for blacks. These words, hurled at people to abase, have not yet proven to be capable of ennobling. This isn’t the Christians at Antioch – embracing the word “Christian” because they were proud followers of Christ. This is the anglo saxon for a female dog (funny that Islam is condemned for having some sects classify women and dogs as unclean, while we in the west call women dogs…), and the slurred adaptation of the word for black. Nothing wrong with being black – but the intent of the word is to keep blacks separate – apart from the human family.
So I’ve decided, finally, that while I agree with those who say that the words mean something different when people in the affected group use them, I also agree with those who argue that the words ought not be used.
I found a couple of other quotes dealing with language, and how we speak – and I wanted to reference them – just as a record of the ideal – that our speech ought to be harmonizing and uplifting, not tearing one another down.
44. O COMPANION OF MY THRONE!
Hear no evil, and see no evil, abase not thyself, neither sigh and weep. Speak no evil, that thou mayest not hear it spoken unto thee, and magnify not the faults of others that thine own faults may not appear great; and wish not the abasement of anyone, that thine own abasement be not exposed. Live then the days of thy life, that are less than a fleeting moment, with thy mind stainless, thy heart unsullied, thy thoughts pure, and thy nature sanctified, so that, free and content, thou mayest put away this mortal frame, and repair unto the mystic paradise and abide in the eternal kingdom for evermore.
(Baha’u'llah, The Persian Hidden Words)
Consort with all men, O people of Baha, in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. If ye be aware of a certain truth, if ye possess a jewel, of which others are deprived, share it with them in a language of utmost kindliness and goodwill. If it be accepted, if it fulfill its purpose, your object is attained. If anyone should refuse it, leave him unto himself, and beseech God to guide him. Beware lest ye deal unkindly with him. A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding.
(Baha’u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15)
*Racist white people =/= all white people. I shouldn’t have to say that, but in this current climate, it’s important to be clear – white people are not all racist, and certainly aren’t all itching to use racially charged language.