I had several other topics I wanted to write about today, but this one insists that it must come first, and I agree, so here it is.
When I first heard, at a distance, that the
OWS Slutwalk NYC movement was accused of racism, I thought to myself, “well, privilege is a tricky subject, and with this many people involved, there are bound to be conflicts about any number of issues…” Then I read somewhere that white women had used the N-word to black women, and were defending their right to do so. I was absolutely appalled.
Later still, I found out there was a sign, made by white women, that referenced the John Lennon song that said “women are the n-words of the world.” As if that somehow makes any of it okay.
White guy John Lennon is dead, so we can’t ask him what he meant when he wrote those words. But I don’t care what he meant.
With the history of that word, especially in this country, it should never be used by white people under any circumstances. Ever.
It can’t be ironic, it can’t be subversive, it can’t be edgy.
It can only be evil.
Here’s my personal history with the N-word. I think I was fairly small, maybe 5 or 6 years old, when there was an uproar in my extended family during a visit to my grandparents. One of my older cousins was found out by the adults to have used the N-word to some neighborhood child or children. One of the adults — maybe his mother, maybe mine, maybe my grandmother — washed his mouth out with soap, and gave him a stern talking-to. But that cousin was frequently in trouble with authority figures, which was actually something that I admired about him, even at my young age. So perhaps that is why my mother sat me down, to explain why this incident was different than the usual mischief and pranks. My mother’s demeanor was not just serious, but grave, as she explained that this particular word could never be considered lighthearted or playful teasing. That this word was always meant to be something that would hurt the other person very deeply. That if you used this word, you were telling the other person that you didn’t think they were a person.
That experience seared me like no other. Whenever I think about it, I’m five years old again, sobbing at the cruelty and injustice in this world, horrorstruck that anyone could even consider using that word, knowing what it would mean to the person hearing it.
Not only have I never used that word, I’ve never had any interest in using that word. And white people who do use that word lose my respect forever.
And yet supposedly, there are white people who want to “reclaim” that word. (1) You can’t reclaim a word that never belonged to you (See Jay Smooth on straight guys reclaiming ‘no homo’, and Latoya Peterson: It’s Not Just the Word). (2) Why stake a claim to such an ugly word? What does it say about you that you want to? (Hint: nothing good.)
Whatever people of color do, or don’t do, with that word, is their business. I don’t have any say in it, and it does not concern me.
But white people need to purge the N-word from their vocabularies. Period. I can hardly believe that this is a statement that I feel I have to make in 2011, when it’s been a touchstone of my life for 40 years.
It seems somehow fitting that my dictionary says the word “reclamation” evolved out of the Latin word reclāmātiō, which means ‘crying out against’.
A year or so after the n-word incident, I read a library book that made a big impression on me, A Patch of Blue. It must’ve been a novelization of the 1965 film, about an interracial romance, which I have never seen (or even heard about until right now). I’m guessing the library in question must have been the public school (where I attended kindergarten and first grade). I seem to remember a librarian saying I needed my mother’s permission to read the book, because the issues might be “too old for me”. But my mother (who never censored what I read) did allow it, so I read it, and it became my favorite book.
I remember visiting my aunt and uncle, who lived in the Southwest, for the summer, and trying to borrow that book from their local library so I could reread it. The librarian there would not allow it, saying the book was totally unsuitable for a young child. I told her I was an advanced reader (which I was), and that I had already read it, after my mother gave permission, but she would not be moved.
So I was probably a teenager the next time I encountered the book. It was only then that I picked up on the racial subtext. (And it wasn’t until reading the Wikipedia entry just now that I realized Selina’s home life was abusive, and her mother was trying to make her into a prostitute.)
What I remembered from the book, what I loved about it, was the friendship between Selina and Gordon. How they were just two people who grew to care for each other despite their very different backgrounds. (That’s what I was hoping the movie The Help was going to be like. What a disappointment!)
I think what we need to reclaim is dignity and justice and equal opportunities for every person, no matter what they look like, no matter where they’re from, no matter who their family is.