By now, I’m sure many of you are familiar with the scandal surrounding the Oklahoma chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, whose members were caught on camera leading the racist chant “you can hang him in a tree, but he’ll never sign with me; there will never be a nigger SAE,” and the subsequent video of the fraternity’s 79-year-old house mother gleefully spouting the n-word with Trinidad James’ “All Gold Everything” playing in the background. Aside from pretty much ruining “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for everyone, the controversy has also reignited the national debate surrounding the n-word and its place in modern society. And what better way to have this debate than on a Don Lemon-hosted panel featuring conservative pundit Ben Ferguson, Morehouse professor Marc Lamont Hill, and the man, the myth, the legend, rapper Trinidad James himself dressed like a pimped-out Robin Hood?!
Of course, this conversation is not a new one. We’ve already had the same national discussion a few times in the last year alone, first when the NFL was considering instituting a penalty for use of the n-word last season, and again when Piers Morgan informed us back in November that black people’s use of the word was perpetuating anti-black racism. Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henson have even publicly sparred over whether or not the word should be used on the popular TV series Empire. The problem is that this “conversation” is merely a deflection. Rather than discussing racism, too many people only want to talk about the n-word.
In reality, though, it is not the slur itself that is so infuriating, but the racist sentiment behind it. Larry Wilmore illustrated this perfectly in a recent segment on the Nightly Show (starting at 3:36 in the video below) where fictional OU alum “D Train” sings the SAE chant replacing the “racist and offensive” n-word with “black guy” and “African American,” much to the same effect.
Whenever an incident like the one in Oklahoma occurs, there is, rightfully, widespread backlash and near-universal condemnation. However, we tend to misplace our outrage by only focusing on the n-word itself. And in doing so, the conversation almost always becomes a lecture about what black people should be doing differently to prevent racism against them. The media follows the same predictable cycle every time:
- White person does something racist
- Focus shifts from racism to the n-word
- Blame is placed on the black community for using the n-word.
That’s basically exactly what happened after rapper Waka Flocka Flame cancelled his concert at the University of Oklahoma in the wake of the SAE scandal. It didn’t take long before MSNBC was all but blaming Waka himself for the incident on Morning Joe, insinuating that it was in fact rappers saying the n-word that caused members of the historically white fraternity with roots in the Confederacy to sing a song proudly celebrating their exclusion of black people.
At least some good came of it, though, in the form of the hashtag #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery, which was so incredible that it almost made up for the ignorance that inspired it.
But as ridiculous as Morning Joe’s take seems, black people generally and rappers in particular are often made the scapegoats in these situations. White people, we are told, can’t be expected to stop being racist until black people stop using the n-word amongst themselves. This simplistic line of reasoning almost willfully ignores any and all context, and serves largely to police black speech. It rests on the false assumption that black people are the ones responsible for the n-word, as though the word was not originally invented by white people and born out of a history of slavery and oppression. White people caused this mess, but black people are expected to clean it up. In many ways, it’s not all that different from the tired “black-on-black crime” argument used to deflect attention away from the mistreatment and violence against black people at the hands of the police and armed vigilantes.
The fuel to the controversy seems to stem from a false understanding that it is the word itself that is problematic, rather than the context/sentiment behind it. In his call to eliminate the n-word, Piers Morgan called it “a grotesque, odious, evil stain on the English language.” In the CNN panel above, Ben Ferguson said that the n-word has become “racially divisive;” that “it is an awful word that is hurting people’s lives.” For them, it’s about the word. Morgan did not call the persistence of racism a grotesque, odious, evil stain on modern society. Ferguson did not say that it was racism that was racially divisive and hurting people’s lives. And that important distinction is how the blame is shifted away from actual racists and onto the victims of racism. The use of the n-word in the black community and in rap music has always been a response to racism, not its cause.
Trinidad James explains: “We use the word because that’s how we came up… People came up using the word in the wrong way; we came up using the word as, ‘how you doing, my nigga?’ And when somebody say ‘my nigga,’ that means, ‘bro, you’re my friend.’ I will call you, Ben, ‘my nigga.’ And when I call you that you do not feel that I hate you. It’s love.”
It seems that many white people simply want a blanket rule regarding the n-word (either everyone can say it or no one can say it), but that’s not how social interactions work. Here, Trinidad has highlighted the importance of context. Yes, the n-word is vulgar, but so is the word “motherfucker.” And when I’m hanging out with my friends, I very well might call one of them a motherfucker without fear of causing offense. But if I went up to a random stranger on the streets of New York and called him a motherfucker, I would probably get punched in the face. And no one would be at all surprised by the difference in outcomes.
Marc Lamont Hill said it best when he dropped this massive truth bomb on Ben Ferguson late in the segment: “White people were saying nigger before Trinidad James was born, and to sit here and say that the n-word has become divisive is absurd… The n-word isn’t divisive; white supremacy is divisive. Slavery was divisive. That’s the problem. And maybe, just maybe, it’s not white people’s position to tell black people what to say. I might see Trinidad James on the street and call him ‘my nigga.’ You know why? Because he is my nigga. And the difference between Trinidad James and you is that Trinidad James has to deal with the same oppressive situations. He was born into a world where anti-black racism prevails. He lives in a world where police might shoot him on the street no matter how much money he has. We share a collective condition known as ‘nigga;’ white people don’t. I’m not saying it should be illegal for white people to use it, I’m saying y’all shouldn’t want to use it given everything that’s happened after 400 years of exploitation and institutional racism.”
We are wasting our time continuing to talk about eliminating a word. It’s not the word that is keeping racism alive, it is the sentiment behind it and the oppressive conditions that black people continue to experience to this day. Complete and total elimination of the n-word would not eliminate any of the effects of institutional racism. Telling black people to stop using the n-word to prevent racism is nothing more than respectability politics. But in the real world, it doesn’t even matter where you come down on this issue: words do not just go away because we want them to. How would one even realistically go about eliminating a word from use? The NAACP tried back in 2007 when they held a mock funeral to bury the n-word once and for all. Needless to say, not much has changed in the eight years since.
If we truly care about ending racism in this country, then we have to move the dialogue beyond simply talking about racial slurs and hurt feelings. We are good at identifying these as generally bad. But if these things are not explicitly present, we rarely take notice. It took a secret recording of a racist rant, and not years of discriminatory business practices, for Donald Sterling to fall from grace. In Ferguson, Missouri, a killer cop in a police department with a documented history of racial discrimination was exonerated without a trial, but other officers lost their jobs over racist emails. This suggests that we put more value on saying the right thing than doing the right thing. Instead, we need to start investing in solutions that address racism at its core. The national dialogue on race that we need should not be about the n-word; it should be about poverty, inequality, segregation, and the prison industrial complex. These things have hurt far more people’s lives than any word possibly could.
Photo via YouTube