Sometimes words can serve me well, sometimes…

I want to weigh in on the Bill Maher  controversy. Last week, he said, in response to “working in the fields” for a Republican (Senator? I think so), Maher laughed and said, “In the fields? I’m a house n…..r!”. What I would take from that  (now that I’m calm) is that Bill doesn’t like hard work. What the rest of the world heard, of course, was “He said the N word!!!!”

There are people who are delighted to hear people say it. There are people (most, I think) that think it’s horrible to say it. I am in the latter category, and have never in my life used that word because of the racism and hatred behind it.

There are three interesting challenges regarding this issue in my experience, and I want to speak about them, and open the floor for discussion. 

Some ground rules first: 

I am White. People who are on the receiving end of this word are not. On some levels, that means I have nothing to say about it’s effect it has on Black people. If you are not on the receiving end of the word, I would ask that you keep that in mind. Further, I am reluctant to step into a discussion, but firmly believe that people who know me can make up their own minds and need to discuss it openly, but without hostility. Both as a White man and as a lover of Black culture,  I offer my experiences as MY experiences, it is my hope that anyone who wants to discuss it will speak only for themselves, and based in their experiences. 

I may edit your comments if I find them offensive, but will leave your argument as best I can. 

Ok. With that said, here’s my issues and experience:

1) In the 1980’s, there was a trend in America, where people of a variety of identifications, “reclaimed” the epithet as a “source of pride”. In this category, gay people used the “F” word, lesbians used the “D” word, feminists “reclaimed” the “B” word, and Black folks did the same with the “N” word. I was saddened by this in every account. I thought it was “internalized” homophobia, misogyny, and racism, but it wasn’t up to me to criticize the people who did/and were in the group. I was told that plenty, by members of the groups I have talked about. I already had in my mind that it was rude, so that wasn’t an issue for me. Still I should acknowledge my sexism here, but it’s only when I’m in a lousy mood or raging that I use the word.

2) That said, in order to be honest, I know that the “letter words” above can be seen by some people, myself included, as meaning a “bad” member of their group.  I have said, “She’s being a “B” though never the “C” word, though I love women as a whole. I have used the “D” word with lesbian friends in talking about certain lesbians — the more “masculine” ones and have never meant it a bad thing, just a descriptor. There are many White people, men and women, who will say, “Bill’s Black, but he’s not a “n”…. or “Mary’s a feminist, but she’s not a “B” about it”. In short, some people see it as rude, but intentionally so, as a way of differentiating one type of person vs another of a certain class. I’ve never heard that discussed as a real thing in discussions, but I raise it here. 

3) Regarding Black culture, I have heard two differing things about the “N” word. First, Richard Pryor, in one of his filmed concerts, talks about going to Africa and never hearing the word. How amazing it was to him, how calming it was to be in such a culture. He came back from that trip, vowing to never say the word again. Second, and this is the most uncomfortable one for me, two of my very best friends, both “of color” have said, “John, you (are) my n….a”. I worked very hard to be trustworthy, kind, and a member of community, so I understood that they meant it as a term of endearment, but I told both friends “I’ll take that as a compliment, but I’ll never use it myself”. I was uncomfortable with it, but was also secretly thrilled that the person felt they could say that to me with such intent. 

I don’t know what to do with any of this, except to say it’s there. I guess my questions are this: 1) in the “politically correct” world, what are the rules regarding liking or loving a culture not my own? Is it “allowed”? 

2) If you are accepted by a certain culture, and do like the culture, is it ok to use the “letter word” for that group?

3) How do we build bridges without stepping on each other’s feelings. What is the proper way to engage in such a situation?  

I look forward to your comments.

Resisting with Peace, 
(Btw, the title comes from Harry Chapin– “sometimes words can serve me well, sometimes words can go to hell, for all that they do”.


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