“The fundamental sign of absence of cultural permission is the lack of words in the language of the dominant culture which would suffice to describe an experience.” – Anthony Temple
July 26, 2010Posted by on
Today we were at dinner and, somehow, the topic of racism or whatever came up (probably Obama) and dad commented about how some white-people say “if we’re equal, how come white people can’t use [the n-word]?”.
This caught me off-guard. My dad actually uses the n-word rather than just saying ‘the n-word’ (he lowers his voice, but, yeah, “I thought white people weren’t allowed to say it but here you are…”), so this was the first time I’d heard it outside the Boondocks in a good while. I also hadn’t heard the argument seriously in a few years, except for the time a trans woman said “Oh, so engineers and mechanics can’t use ‘tranny’ now?” as if transmissions have any relation to “tranny” in the sense of trans maabs (and a troll ignoring the history of ‘tranny’ to say ‘cis’ is offensive). And the idea that anyone could see this argument as valid, and the fact that I really don’t know how much my dad knows about white privilege so I was trying to figure out how the hell to educate about something I still have to seriously freaking work through.
Actually, I do know. My dad is pretty much completely unaware of privilege and marginalization in this world- I’ve never seen him treat anyone differently or say a bad word about someone. My mom is racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and overall bigoted- my dad is just completely unaware of the privilege that he has. Which is probably a good chunk of why I’m having such a hard time working through my own. (which reminds me- clue by four. Feel free to hit me with it when needed)
The best reply I could get out was the poorly worded “We’re not equal”. To which he replied with how people of color probably wouldn’t agree with that (not in those words, but close enough), basically implying that I’m saying that, as human beings, we don’t deserve equal treatment and I got to flounder because that was so not what I meant and a “What do you mean by that?” would’ve been way more appropriate, and I get to try and fix that while being annoyed at having to fix something I was never given a chance to explain when he’s the one pulling out that argument as if it’s AT ALL … anything, that argument is too full of fail to quantify.
We are not treated equally. Even though it is true that “all men humans are created equal” and all people deserve equal rights, respect, and treatment; that doesn’t mean all humans are seen as equal. In the eyes of society, privileged people and marginalized people are not equal. The life of a white person is seen as more important than the life of a person of color. The rights of white people are seen as more worthy of protection than those of people of color. People of color who lack other privileges face more problems than white people who lack those same privileges. Yes, we have a black president. We have a black Disney Princess (the pinnacle of… something).
Progress is being made. But white privilege still exists. People of color are still marginalized.
A black mother in a white neighborhood can still face complete alienation from other mothers and even teachers (all three links to different comments on the same situation). The entire Love Isn’t Enough blog, actually, shows a ton of race-based privilege and marginalization still in our society. A good number of the transphobic and homophobic hate crimes are committed against people, primarily women in the case of trans people, of color. This is not equality.
And the n-word is not “just” a word. It’s a word that has a history of oppression, of being a weapon white people use(d) against people of color. Privileged people act as though marginalized people made up these words themselves- they didn’t. These are the words that were (and sometimes still are) spat in their faces to reinforce their subhuman status and that they deserve the mistreatment they get just for not being born white, male, straight, thin enough, cisgendered, and wealthy (and also for not being able bodied and neurotypical even if they weren’t born that way).
In this case it’s people of color (mostly those of/perceived as being of african decent or “black”) and the n-word, but it applies to a lot of other words that have been used against people of color, and words used against any marginalized group. When black people use the n-word, they are reclaiming a word that has a long history of weaponization against them. That group is allowed to be uncomfortable when the people who have weaponized the word in the first place (and who have the power to weaponize it again) use it.
If a person shot you with a gun, and later on you see them pointing that same gun at you- you’re bound to get a lot more antsy then if you grab the gun to try and keep it from being used against you again. Words aren’t literally guns- but they have power. They can be used as weapons, especially when backed with the systematic discrimination so many groups have faced and still do face in society. And it shows extreme disregard to say “I don’t care how using this word makes you feel- I want to use it”. Especially when you consider that the history of that word has been “I don’t care if you think you’re a human- I think you’re less than an animal”.
People with privilege overpower people without because society sees them as more valid and important. It is extremely easy for a person with privilege to overpower a discussion about how that privilege effects the marginalized group, just because we’re raised to believe we have a right to. Privileged people can demand the marginalized people educate them, stop using words that “make them uncomfortable”, turn the conversation into what they want to talk about, ignore the experiences and silence the voices of the marginalized people, and expect the marginalized group to be okay with this because “but I support you!” (and, also, because the privilege we’re brought up with tells us that we’re allowed to treat unprivileged people this way)
And white people wanting to use the n-word isn’t even helping the marginalized group. The only times I can think of where it’s used by white people is while being racist. I honestly can’t think of a reason why white people would need to use the n-word rather than a non-offensive one. We have a giant list of words at our disposal that aren’t packed with discrimination. Why would we want to use this one?
There’s also the issue of this “allowed to”. A marginalized group can’t tell a privileged group what to do (and have it happen unless the privileged group wants it to). When the only people who felt the n-word was offensive were people of color, white people still used it. That white people face social consequences for using the n-word says a lot about how far things have come in terms of white people acknowledging that racism is busted (although we’ve got a ways to go before white privilege and racism genuinely are things of the past). This isn’t Harry Potter. It isn’t set up so that every time a white person uses the n-word, Voldemort jumps out and crucios you. The only punishment that comes from using the n-word comes because so many white people have realized how toxic this word is when it’s on the lips of a white person that they apply social pressure not to.
Consider words used as slurs for other groups. Faggot, retard, tranny- every single marginalized person in the world could say that heteronormative, neurotypical, cis people aren’t allowed to use these words and they’ll still be used like that until enough heteronormative, neurotypical, cis people say “you know what- they’re right” that there’s enough pressure not to do so. It’s why wermen have to care about rape culture and sexism. The privileged group is privileged- it has more power than the marginalized group.
People of color are not the only ones saying that white people can’t use the n-word. The idea that people of color have so much “power over” white people only serves to try and cover up white privilege while simultaneously silencing the voices and experiences of people of color that white people don’t want to hear. Yes, that’s right, you can deny and reinforce privilege at the same time.
Which is really why that question is so incredibly fucked up. It does two things: 1. it reinforces that what white people want overpowers what people of color want, 2. it reinforces the idea that white privilege is non-existant and people of color are no longer marginalized (even that people of color are now somehow privileged over white people), just because it makes white people uncomfortable to realize their own privilege.