Monday, July 21, 2008

Got Privilege...Now What?

The discussion on The View has led to a lot of conversation in the blogosphere regarding who has the right to say Nigger.    There seems to be some consensus among anti-racist whites that nigger should not be used, yet due to issues of privilege and power they are resistant to enter into conversations on this issue.  As a committed anti-racist I take issue with this abdication on the part of white people.  It is good that you own your privilege and your power, but not acting because of it is actually a negation of ownership. Creating spaces that are specifically black, is not necessarily a sign of respect, rather I submit to you that this is nothing but a performance of equality without  responsibility.

To speak plainly…It is not appropriate to say that because my body is encoded with a certain social meaning I cannot, or should not operate within a specific sphere. Depending upon the context, if you truly believe that something is racist, it would behove you to speak against it regardless of the audience. It is not sufficient to only decry racism in safe places. It is easy to speak to a white supremacist, or tackle FOX news for their blatant racism because it costs you nothing. Being a committed anti-racist entails having the courage of your convictions and speaking out about issues of race at every opportunity.  This does not have to be an accusatory conversation or even come from a place wherein it is presented as a silencing tactic or an order. If one is capable of acknowledging that the body is not free of discursive elements the conversation can and should be had.

I don’t believe in waiting for permission to speak, as this reinforces a sense of hierarchy to a conversation. If we understand that white bodies are raced then it is acceptable for them to enter a racial conversation. To say that race is the preserve solely of bodies of colour re-enforces the racism that we are working against. It is the same thing as saying reverse racism.  Whites need to engage on this issue simply because the word nigger is damaging.  To call the debate a black issue and declare it unfit for whites to enter means that once again we are creating separate spheres.  Progressive conversations cannot evolve when we are divided not only in purpose but from one another. 

Nigger was fostered on blacks to reduce our humanity and by willingly taking on this mantle some blacks are saying that they agree with this label. If we need to take ownership for something it should be the positive aspects of black history, and or culture not a hate label that reduces our humanity.

If one is truly an anti-racist or espouses anti-racism it should not be possible to support in language or deed a label that reinforces inequality. We cannot speak about equality while using the language of our oppressor for it is in the words of Audre Lorde to use the masters tools. As blacks we have a vested interest in racial equality due to the systemic nature of racism, and the way in which it impacts our lives, and therefor for us to continue to collude through language and behaviour with those that benefit from our marginalization is a form of racial suicide. Is it really any wonder that when black children were presented with dolls they overwhelming chose the white doll as beautiful. Self love begins with relinquishing the ugliness that society has chosen to construct around the body.  We all  have a role to play in this important issue if we hope to achieve the post-racial society we claim to be living in.


15 comments:

samantha said...

Only minutes after reading your blog post, I came across this post: http://www.fadedyouthblog.com/39685/more-stars-chime-in-on-the-view-drama/
"[Hasselbeck] doesn’t understand, and, no offense — I don’t think any white person has the right to tell a black person or to even weigh in on subject matter such as that,” Diggs told “Access Hollywood” on Thursday." (There's more.)

Meadester said...

Black people can tell me not to use the words "Honky" or "Cracker" but I will greet such a lecture with either a laugh or a yawn. I can certainly understand Black people having a similar reaction to some holier-than-thou white person telling them what they can and can't call themselves.

Sandalstraps said...

Renee,

As you know, I'm white, and I try to be anti-racist. I believe that the N-word (I can't even bring myself to type it) is racist and should not be used.

Yet I also fall into the class of white people who you claim here abdicate responsibility on the subject of this word. In some groups I denounce the use of the word, in others I remain silent. The reason for this may be simple moral cowardise, or it may be considerably more complicated.

Among black teenagers with whom I have a relationship (and, as a teacher and spiritual guide, some authority) I denounce the use of the word, even as they apply it to each other in a "friendly" way. Such "friendly" use of the word - in the context of a pre-existing relationship in which trust has been established - will elicit from me a history of the use of the word, and why I believe that it cannot be redeemed.

But in other groups, where no such relationship exists - say, on the basketball courts in the park near my house - I say nothing when two grown black men use that word with each other. I don't see what good my speaking on the subject would do.

Perhaps this is a lack of moral courage. Or perhaps it is a recognition that part of privilege means that white men like me have been policing public discourse in our culture for as long as there has been public discourse in our culture. To continue to police public discourse - especially in a principally "black" space, absent any relationship or reason to trust - is a continuation of that privilege, even if it is well intentioned. As such, there is no reason to expect that my words would do good, and many reasons to expect that they will do harm.

Or, all of this thought could - as you seem to imply in your post - merely serve as a comfortable cover for moral cowardise.

Sandalstraps said...

It occurs to me now that I may have missed your point. Your post discusses only conversations in the blogosphere, and I responded with only examples from the "real" world. Perhaps the rules for discourse are different in those two arenas.

Renee said...

I believe that the conversation should begin wherever a person feels comfortable. If some people prefer the safety of the internet that is fine, just as long as they take the time to point out that the continued usage of that word is wrong. There is no place in a civilized world for words akin to that to be part of daily discourse.

TinaH said...

I'm another white person trying hard to learn to be an anti-racist. My first thoughts were also of the real world and what I would do v. the internet and what I would do. I would probably feel more free to challenge the n word among strangers online than face to face.

Jack said...

Hmmm. I am a straight white male striving to be an ally in every arena.

My experience has shown me never to tell people what to do. So, "don't use that word," is never an option for me. This has been poignant in my life because I refuse to say the b-word regardless of its referent. I don't tell other people not to use the b-word but if I have an opportunity I will tell them why I think it is harmful, and they can make a free choice which may or may not be informed by what I have offered them.

I think that is the way things must go, because any sustainable choice is also a free choice, and free choices do not result from telling people what to do.

I think it is wrong for a white person to tell a black person not to use the n-word just as I think it is wrong for anybody to tell anyone else what to do. If it is a matter of safety or comfort, one must express how they are affected by the language being used, and if the person using that language respects that the offended person should not have to be subjected to it, they may abstain in their presence. This is worlds away from telling somebody not to do something.

If it is morally apprehensible, then all we can do is explain our views and hope that the other person agrees.

As for the use of the n-word itself: I think the reappropriation argument is half right half wrong. The n-word is not particularly helpful, and continuing to use it may simply be internalized oppression and nothing else. On the other hand, its positive use by black folks has significantly mitigated the effects of negative use by white folks. Some power has been reappropriated, I think, but I'm not sure if that warrants the usage.

As for your statements about what we might call armchair-allies, I agree wholeheartedly. My dilemma in speaking more about this issue is whether or not the word should be used depends on how it is operating in the black psyche, and I know nothing about this.

Renee said...

@Jack
I think it is wrong for a white person to tell a black person not to use the n-word just as I think it is wrong for anybody to tell anyone else what to do. If it is a matter of safety or comfort, one must express how they are affected by the language being used, and if the person using that language respects that the offended person should not have to be subjected to it, they may abstain in their presence. This is worlds away from telling somebody not to do something.

How does the word impact you? Are you offended when you hear it? Do you consider it assaultive speech? That is the limitus test for racist language is it not? It should not matter who uses the hate language if you agree that the term itself is racism. You would call out a white person therefore a black person should not be immune from the same criticism based in race. There are plenty of black people who take the view that this word is simply unacceptable and therefore it is not an oppression upon a group of people.

Jack said...

I would offer a descriptive linguistic perspective in saying that "nigger" and "nigga" are two different words with a common etymological ancestor.

Functionally, "nigga" is nearly identical to the innocuous "dude," but it becomes problematic insofar as it resembles and is rooted in usage of the word "nigger."

So in and of itself there is nothing wrong with it--but everything is contextual.

I would immediately confront harmful usage of "nigger," but "nigga" simply has different linguistic functions. Yet it exists inside of a context where it evokes one of the most harmful words ever spoken.

It's a grey zone. It's good and bad. I don't know the answers, so it's difficult to participate in the discourse. I oppose use of the b-word and tend to think reappropriation is misguided, yet it seems that reappropriation of the n-word was moderately successful. But all this is relative to how that word impacts people, which is relative to their subjective experiences. I suppose it is the lesser of two evils, and "brother" would be a much better substitute for "nigga."

But I think the word meets a need. I know a lot of black folks who will nod or subtly acknowledge other black folks in the street even if they are not acquaintances. This can be a show of solidarity, an acknowledgment of shared experience. This can provide mutual support and encouragement inside a society that other-izes them. "Nigga" can serve the same purpose, precisely because white folks can't use it, and even if we ultimately decry its usage I think we need to acknowledge that it is multifaceted.

Well that's all for now, let us continue this discussion.

Renee said...

@Jack
Functionally, "nigga" is nearly identical to the innocuous "dude," but it becomes problematic insofar as it resembles and is rooted in usage of the word "nigger."

No you cannot compare dude (a pimple on a horses ass) to nigga...having nigger as its originator forever taints that work and makes it a hate word as well.

I know a lot of black folks who will nod or subtly acknowledge other black folks in the street even if they are not acquaintances. This can be a show of solidarity, an acknowledgment of shared experience.
Yes this is behavior that I regularly participate in. I also view it as s an expression of solidarity.

This can provide mutual support and encouragement inside a society that other-izes them. "Nigga" can serve the same purpose, precisely because white folks can't use it, and even if we ultimately decry its usage I think we need to acknowledge that it is multifaceted.

And this is where you completely loose me. Acknowledging nigga or nigger as a term of endearment would mean lowering myself. I will not stoop to find commonality with anyone. There is a cost to acknowledging this greeting. It would mean that we share the same inhuman status.

Jack said...

Acknowledging nigga or nigger as a term of endearment would mean lowering myself.

Then using it indicates that solidarity is valued more than dignity, perhaps because those who use it feel that the color-hierarchy stole their dignity long ago?

Interesting. There is a cost to acknowledging the greeting. Perhaps it's better than the total isolation these individuals might otherwise feel, or perhaps it blocks them from reclaiming their humanity in spite of politicized skin.

I agree that it would be best for folks of all levels of melanin concentration to move past the n-word. I just think we first need to acknowledge how multifaceted the issue is so that we hold no contempt for those folks of color who use it with positive intentions--and also so we can understand the desire to do so, which we must do if we are to offer the kind of support and encouragement that can contribute to the n-word's obsolescence.

lindabeth said...

Renee, I agree in theory that white people shouldn't not speak up...but what to do when after Elizabeth spoke up about the use of the word that she was reprimanded by Whoopi, a black woman?

Renee said...

@Lindabeth...I don't really have a good solution to be perfectly honest. I do believe that whites are going to get resistance speaking against this but every time you speak out against racism, homophobia etc there will always be some kind of social backlash. The alternative is to be quiet and allow the status quo to remain, is that a good thing?

lindabeth said...

No, I definitely don't think being quiet is a good thing. But after seeing Whoopi's display, I find this statement a bit harsh, or maybe lacking some degree of perspective:

As a committed anti-racist I take issue with this abdication on the part of white people. It is good that you own your privilege and your power, but not acting because of it is actually a negation of ownership.

In other words, it is not always from negating one's ownership that one might not adamantly speak up. I could be in allowing a marginalized individual (i.e. this black women) to speak and to be heard that one might not put up the kind of fight you want, or that I might want. There is a point where white people can understandably say, "who am I--a white person--to tell a black person what words are culturally OK to use to talk to other black people?" This seems to be an issue best debated by the American black community themselves.

Can this be compared at all to men trying to tell women what it means to be a feminist?

I'm not trying to be antagonistic or anything, I'm sorry if that's how it sounds. I just feel like yes, we should speak up, but maybe situationally that's not always the best thing, so perhaps telling white people they are refusing to own their privilege when they do decide to sit back and listen may not be altogether fair either.

Renee said...

@lindabeth...no I don't consider you antagonistic in the least. This is a good conversation. In the end that it what I am trying to promote is conversation about the issue. Yes I agree with you that Whoopie was indeed hostile however this is the same kind of hostility you are going to face when you come against isms in this society to push for change. Many people today feel that racism is wrong but when the civil rights movement started and people were fighting for social justice the protesters came up against a lot more than the angry words displayed by Whoopie. Some lost their lives in the name of equality. What I am saying is that to truly believe in something one needs to have the courage of your convictions.