In 1960s America, at least in my little corner of it, certain words and phrases were spoken commonly. Without thought. As a child in that decade, they were just everyday vocabulary lessons. The N-Word was just another word that was uttered. Just another entry in the dictionary.
Now obviously that word has a lot of negative emotions associated with it. And confusion. How many times have you heard “why can black people say it but not white people, that’s racist”? Well here’s the thing … it’s not a competition. Deciding what your vocabulary should be based on what others say is ignorant (to put it plainly). If a word or phrase causes others harm and promotes negative behaviors, then don’t say it. Period. It doesn’t matter if Rapper X uses it, you don’t. Pretty simple, right?
OK. Yes, I’m aware that we’re about to switch topics without my holding up a topic card, but stay with me for a bit. It will all come together.
The Super Bowl. Or The World Cup, if that’s your thing. A competition designed to prove who’s best in a certain sport. Great fun, right? Well, I agree … but at some point we decided that we needed to apply the concept to life in general. Who were the winners and losers? Then it became who is THE WINNER. And now it’s become “Who is the winner and how low can we smash and demolish the losers, for it’s not enough to just win, we must destroy everyone else! There can BE ONLY ONE!”.
Seriously, think about it. Just look at my country of birth. Celebrating being an American has become more about ruining each and every other culture. It’s become the norm to (a) compare everything you do in terms of “us and them”, and (b) climb to the top and kick everyone else into the hell-moat below.
So let’s wrap these concepts together … Why can that dude over there say n***** but I can’t? That means they are winning, somehow. They get to do something I can’t? Oh, hell no. So not only will I use the word, but I will slander them while doing it. THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!
I know that was a bit dramatic, but think about it. Why should we care that NWA has that word in their name. It doesn’t change in the least how we should shape our own vocabularies. Doing the right thing is not a dead concept. Not to me, and not to you either. We need to keep the Super Bowl mentality where it belongs, and change the game of life to be one of a single team. We don’t need to end up with a single winner standing atop the globe. We all need to stand there together.
OK, I know I’m starting to get away from the main topic, so let’s resume our walk down the language path.
The world in which I grew and learned was one of saturation, as probably was all of yours. Our wee brains were sponges, soaking up everything. We didn’t stop and examine every word and concept, we just absorbed most of it. I distinctly remember being on the schoolyard playground and being in conversations where we said ‘The South will rise again”. We shared our beliefs that there was a difference in the races, all stated with the conviction that comes with learning without comprehension. We had heard it, we said it, and there were no negative grades given for our regurgitation of our learnings, so it became “knowledge”. Just the same as if we had stated 1+1=3 and no one corrected us. It became “what we knew”. And for many of us in white suburban America, the N-Word was indeed 1+1=3. We believed it to be a correct term. And thus it was imprinted.
It’s odd in that there were many other opportunities for equally negative beliefs to form, but they somehow weren’t in focus for me. I remember being in high school and a buddy said he met the new kid in school. Asked if I wanted to hang out with him. Then he added … “He’s Jewish, is that OK?”. Which is the odd part … I really didn’t know what that meant. Was Jewish bad? I hadn’t taken that playground course. So I just said sure, and off we went. Which, looking back, screams at me at how we learn. Being comfortable with racism against blacks was taught. Without that kind of teaching, my natural instinct was that the new kid was ok … unless he turned out to be an asshole. But I had no need to pre-decide.
There is an overlap, however. Even though I had no bigotry taught to me against Judaism, what I did have as regards to others left me ill-equipped to deal with any group of people. There is an equally offensive word against Jews, which starts with a K. I have used it, because I didn’t know it was hurtful. And when I learned, I stopped. But I didn’t really understand “why”. I just knew it was something I shouldn’t say. Because I was raised in a world where hateful words were so common, I didn’t understand how they could hurt. I didn’t understand their power. N***** was just a word, right? K*** was just a word. Just … words.
This, I believe, is the root of the problem. (Aside from the stupid need to be able to anything that anyone else can do, so nyah nyah, you can’t stop me from doing what I want – sorry, but that’s how it sounds to me, adults acting like two year olds when it comes to comparing themselves to others).
Ahem, I digress.
The root. I finally got my test scores back a few decades after I took the actual test. When I finally learned that 1+1 actually equals 2, I accepted it. Believed it. But still, for the longest time I believed it was 3. That sticks a bit. Unlearning is oftentimes harder than learning. Such as it is with words. The casualness in which one utters phrases, without correction. Then along comes enlightenment … but the original knowledge is still sitting there in the corner of one’s mind, being confused.
There is one other aspect to this that is hard for some to understand. I grew up in a world where there were no negative terms which could be used against me. Cracker? Honkey? Redneck? Didn’t affect me in the least. In fact, I still know a lot of people who take ‘Redneck’ as a compliment. There wasn’t a word which could hurt me. So how could I understand the concept of what words could do to others?
There are phrases now that can impact me, but they’re not the same. Call me a racist or a bigot, and I’m hurt. Because I don’t want to be called them. Because they imply that I’m less than I should be. But are they on the same level as the N- and K- Word? Not even close. Those words have power. Extreme power. Power that is unimaginable to many of us. And it doesn’t matter if some actor gets to say them. Or that a rapper utters them. We can’t base our behaviors and knowledge on what others do. There isn’t a magic date where everyone, everywhere, will all at once stop saying n*****.
But there is a date for me and you. And that date was yesterday.