Saturday, April 9, 2011

The N-word and the Rhetorical Situation: Being a Good Big Sister

My little brother is 15. He's a good kid. He's friendly, funny, smart, and--mind-boggling to this once-high-school-freak--popular and well-liked. He has an array of friends, and my mom's house is the congregation spot. There is seldom a time I have called in the last year when there isn't a kid or two hanging around.

He also has, as much as possible in an overwhelmingly white rural area, a racially diverse group of friends. A few of his friends are black or biracial.

There's some context to set up the rest of this story. This morning, I get a text from my sister saying that she got on to my brother and his friend (also white) for yelling the n-word as they shot zombies (of no particular race) on a video game.

I texted my brother and asked him what was going on. He responded with the same response he gave my sister. He wasn't using the word "like that." He meant it as its dictionary definition dictated: to indicate that someone was ignorant. He had no racial connotations in mind when he said it. I texted back "we need to talk."

We did. I said that I understood what he was saying, but that he didn't understand the history and societal meanings steeped on that word. I explained the difference between denotation and connotation. I asked him how he would feel if his niece (my biracial daughter) heard him saying that word.

He said he wouldn't say it anymore, but I don't know if I handled it right. I later texted him again to ask if he'd read some articles if I sent them to him. He said yes (and I believe him. He is, despite this incident, a thoughtful, caring young man.)

First off, I do not believe in censoring words. I think that  moves like Jesse Jackson's proposed n-word ban are ridiculous, ineffective ways to tackle the real problem. In a graduate-level class on free speech, I wrote a final paper about these issues in which I maintained that banning words and assuming that a single meaning is the only meaning a word can have is detrimental because it gives that word too much power. Words have no innate meaning; they have only the meaning people give them. And if words denote racist thoughts, it is only because there are people thinking racist thoughts to begin with. Banning a word does nothing to remove those ideas.

Let me rephrase. I do not believe in censoring words from the outside. But I believe very strongly in censoring words yourself. I have chosen not to use the n-word. This is hard for me--not because I have any desire to say it to anyone or about anyone, but because I study race, rhetoric, literature, and pop culture. I read and watch a lot of things with this word. I quote these things when I write papers. I have a (perhaps silly) rule: if it's said/written in my own words, I use "n-word." If it's a direct quote, I write the full word. I recognize that this seems counter to the statements I made above about words only having the meaning you give them, but I also understand that no word has meaning without social context--my own intention is only one part of what creates the full meaning of the word. And because of my place within that social context, I do not feel that I have the ethos to use it.

The social context for the n-word includes the years and years that it's been used to mean "less than human." The lynchings that have occurred after a mob used this word to propel themselves forward. The times it's been screamed and the times it's been muttered under someone's breath to promote a racist agenda. And for me, the times it's been screamed at my husband, occasionally in my presence. In particular, the time my mom's neighbors screamed it at us--me pregnant and terrified--as they fired a gun in the air because they were mad at my mom for asking them to keep their dog in their yard.

I called my mom because I was upset when I heard that my brother was tossing around this word so casually. She said, "I told him not to use it. But his black friends say it."

I responded with a long-winded (and probably audience-inappropriate) retort. Something like, "Often members of oppressed groups reclaim a word used in oppression because it can restore some power." But that doesn't matter.

The fact of it is my little brother is using this word because he is testing social boundaries. I think the fact that he says he's using it for it's "real definition" at least illustrates that he's aware of the power of words. With that in mind, I want to take this as an opportunity to teach. So what do I tell him? I am trained to write papers for overly-analytical academics. What do I tell this well-meaning fifteen year old?

Do I send him websites like this one that show white audiences gawking at lynched bodies for entertainment?
Do I send him articles like this one reviewing Jabari Asim's book The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why?
Or blog posts like this one at Carmalized written in response to Dr. Laura's racist outburst?

How do you begin these conversations with someone who isn't aware of things like white privilege and who lives in an area with so little diversity that overt racist actions are rare (though, as my mom's neighbors proved, still present)? How do I move this lesson forward?

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