Saturday, August 14, 2010

Dr. Laura & the Use of a Loaded Word

A decision by Dr. Laura Schlessinger to use the "n-word" multiple times on a call from an African American listener has landed the radio talk show host in hot water and has reignited another national conversation on one of the most controversial words known to the English language.

Schlessinger, who has over nine million listeners each week, has apologized for her use of the epithet but that hasn't stopped the likes of Al Sharpton and other black leaders calling for boycotts of her show and for advertisers to pull their funding.

I don't know how the situation with Dr. Laura will play out but I do think her gaffe gives us the opportunity to examine the use of the n-word and its effects on those who use it and those that hear it.  As a white man that spends a significant amount of time around African Americans that frequently provides cross-cultural training for other white people, I am well-acquainted with the use of this particular word and its nuances when used among African Americans, as well as how it is typically used when directed towards black people by those of us of other races.

Unfortunately, there is not a cut and dried answer to how to handle the use of this loaded word.  The thinking, like Dr. Laura's, that because African Americans use the word it should be open to use by anyone is both naive and overly simplistic.  The reasons why we use it, the history behind its evolution and the place it plays in modern society all play a role in examining its effect in today's world.

A great resource in understanding the n-word is Harvard professor Randall Kennedy's intriguing book, N****r: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.  Dr. Kennedy adequately provides a proper historical context, examples of legal cases in which the n-word played a prominent role and how the "mainstreaming" of its use by black comedians and hip-hop artists has created confusion among white people.

On one hand, I sympathize with other whites that don't understand why it appears to be perfectly acceptable among African Americans in any context but it is off-limits to anyone else.  For young white kids who grow up listening to hip-hop (like I did), there is a high likelihood of the n-word being frequently heard. A white person could be innocently singing along to a favorite song on their i Pod and end up getting their butt kicked as a result.

Some blacks argue that their use of it in familial terms within their own community strips it of its negative power and alleviates it of its historical, racist baggage.  Also, a common defense is that the word used by African Americans is n***a and not n***er and, therefore, is acceptable.  But we have to look no further than the recent incident with Dr. Laura, as well as other examples, to see that this word, in either form, has not lost its power and is still an extremely loaded term.

On the other hand, I have personally seen how it can be used differently among African Americans.  Because of the nature of my ministry, I am often in environments where I am literally the only white guy in the room.  In some of those situations, I am privileged to experience a high level of trust and I hear conversations that most whites are not privy to.  So, yes, I occasionally hear the n-word used by African Americans towards other African Americans and it seems to be coming from a different place than how it is often used by non-blacks.

In the end, I really don't have a concrete answer to what we should do about it. There are plenty of words that are acceptable or non-acceptable based on the context of how they are used.  For example, how I use "Jesus Christ" is much different than how those two words are frequently used in television and in movies.  I use it as the name for my Lord and Savior; many others use it as a curse word.  Both uses can bring tears to my eyes...but for completely different reasons.

In the case of the n-word, because of its baggage and the negative energy that surrounds it, I wish it was no longer part of our vocabulary. But I know that is not happening anytime soon.  Because I am aware of its history and how it can be received when used by white people, the n-word is never uttered by my lips. Not in my humor.  Not in quoting others.  Not in public.  Not in private.  Not for any reason at all. No good is going to come of it.

My recommendation if you are white is that you take up the same practice as myself. You may assert you have a "right" to use it if others are allowed to. I say give up that "right." There are plenty of things I could do and say but I choose not to because it can bring hurt and pain to others. This word is one such example.  Right or wrong, it is simply not received the same way when we use it.  So I say let's not use it.  Ever.

If you are an African American, I do not feel it is my place to tell you what to do about it. But if you do choose to use this word as part of your vocabulary, I would offer a word of caution that you do a self-examination as to who you use it with and the places and contexts that you use it. There are certain things we do with our family and closest friends that we don't do out in public around strangers. I would contend that use of the n-word would be one of those things.

It is because of ignorance and hatred that this word came into being with the meaning that it now has.  My hope is that further ignorance does not allow the current controversy with Dr. Laura to not allow for a healthy and intelligent dialogue on race.  There needs to be further discussions behind the "whys" of the charged nature of the n-word.  Once we sincerely hear from one another on how things got to where they are now, perhaps we can then attempt to work together on what to do now.

No comments: