The word, inappropriately uttered, has the news value of a bullet fired off at the mall. One word. It’s the ticking time bomb of American history. It pulsates with paradox.
I want to take a moment to honor at least that: the paradox. How come its meaning changes depending on who says it? Some Americans can say that word with a sort of joyous irony, indeed, find a triumphant sense of empowerment in its use, while others can’t say it even in solidarity without risking an avalanche of censure?
The short answer: Racism is the American fault line. It doesn’t take much to set it trembling. Just ask Bill Maher, who, several weeks ago pushed the politically incorrect button and uttered the phrase “house nigger” on live TV. He meant it, of course, ironically, but no matter. He was quickly called out for shockingly poor taste and has since apologized, but only with a side order of consternation: Why? Why is this still such a big deal? Isn’t Jim Crow dead?
My intention here is to move the controversy beyond Bill Maher, to ask: Is there a way to talk about the n-word free of the history that created it? Is there a zone of trust and candor we can enter uncontaminated by that history? Is there, to put it bluntly, a way for white Americans to “cross the line” — in the words of the rapper Ice Cube — and speak believably to black Americans on the issue of race and racism, and earn the privilege of saying the n-word as a soulmate, not a racist?
Ice Cube was one of the guests on “Real Time with Bill Maher” who addressed the issue of the n-word with Maher a week after the controversy. His take on it was astute:
“It’s a word that has been used against us,” he said. “It’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard [it], it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin’, but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.
“. . . when I hear my homies say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feels like that knife stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it.”
As a white person — technically and unavoidably so, despite my contempt for the arrogance, privilege and ignorance that comes with this concept — I find these words humbling and unnerving, almost to the point of: How dare I try to address this issue? Any assumption I make that I know what I’m talking about could simply stir the venom and make things worse.
But Ice Cube also said: “I accept your apology. But I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche.”
The definition of “psyche” is the human soul, and the word in question — the explosive n-word — certainly destroys any chance of keeping the search for its root at a superficial level.
So let’s talk about race. I grew up, came of age, in the ’50s and ’60s. Whatever else this time period is, it was the last gasp of what I would call the Golden Age of Racism, when “whiteness” was so normal it was almost unnoticed and racist language — racist certainty — was everywhere, a part of everyday life. Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Catch a . . .
The word that came next was not “tiger.”
Nice ladies expressed their gratitude by saying “that’s very white of you” and the story of Europeans’ discovery and conquest of Planet Earth was the entire context in which history was taught to boys and girls. In the textbooks of my boyhood (and well beyond), a given piece of the planet didn’t actually, seriously exist until “the first white man” set foot on it. And so on.
And of course segregation was everywhere, both physically and culturally. I grew up in Dearborn, Mich., a suburb west of Detroit. The city is now home to one of the largest Arab populations outside of the Middle East, but when I lived there it was famously “all white,” with a mayor, Orville Hubbard, often described as the George Wallace of the North, who was dedicated to keeping it that way. In 1963, when I was in high school, Dearborn briefly made national news when a race riot broke out because black movers were helping a couple move into a house and neighbors thought it was the blacks who were moving in. Hundreds of people surrounded the house for two days. The local paper later ran this headline over the story: “Crowds Damage Home and Car in False Negro Scare.”
All this was just a fragment of the horror of Jim Crow, post-slavery, 1950s America. But it’s a part of the context — social, cultural, political — of white supremacy, which, when one becomes aware of it, begins to feel like a psychological cage: an absolute wrong that one wants no part of. My sense is that Maher, in appropriating the non-racist use of the n-word — attempting to use it gangsta-style, beyond the edge of political correctness — was banging the bars of that cage, declaring his freedom from small-mindedness and the illusion of supremacy.
Yeah, I get it. But using the n-word for your liberation when you or your forebears were not personally wounded by it — corralled into the status of subhuman by it — is just too easy, if only because the wrong of Eurocentric racism, five centuries in the making, remains unhealed and, indeed, ongoing: embedded in our wars, our prisons and our economy.
The razor’s edge of the n-word still cuts. “It’s a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife, man.”
It stands as evidence that this country is still wounded at the depth of its soul.