Recently, Lindsay Lohan made news for tweeting the n-word. I've been told that she was tweeting one of Kanye West's lyrics. Madonna, whom I adored as my own personal cone bra'd freedom fighter since middle school, also had a similar social media debacle.
Kanye using this word in a song doesn't take away the sting of being called the n-word in the subway a couple of years ago when I accidentally bumped into a man, smiled and apologized. It didn't clear up the humiliation I felt when campus security at my college asked my dad why he was carrying a computer, like every other dad moving his daughter into the dorms. It didn't add a catchy jingle to my late uncle being beaten and thrown in jail without his diabetes medicine after he was the one who called the cops to report one of his wayward tenants. It also didn't erase the racial slurs hurled at his son when my cousin was ripped from his vehicle by officers who found his car "too fancy for an 18-year-old" when he was driving back to school after the holidays.
Many years ago, I was on a reality show where off-camera one of my cast mates made an extremely upsetting remark to me using the n-word. When I reported this verbal assault, her defense was that she used the n-word with her black friends at home, and was just quoting a Lil Wayne lyric. I don't know any Lil Wayne lyrics so I have no idea whether she was telling the truth, but either way, found this irrelevant. This woman barely knew me, so to assume such intimacies made no sense. (Neither did either of us debasing ourselves on a reality show, but that is another conversation!)
The political correctness movement was in full swing when I was growing up. I remember a blonde girl named Melinda telling black jokes in middle school that made my skin crawl. I laughed along then went into the bathroom stall and bawled my eyes out. Melinda and I had an unspoken agreement. She told the jokes in front of me to signify that clearly she was not prejudiced. She was telling these jokes in front of one of the four black girls in her grade. I was showing that I was cool and a down chick by laughing along like an idiot.
It hurt then and it hurts now. As an empowerment coach, I study and teach the power of the language we use to speak to ourselves and others. Language has the power to soothe and to wound. Do I wince when I listen to black and Latino kids on the subway and every other word is the n-word? Of course I do. It's an assault to my ears-- but I don't walk their path or live their truth. I have no right to judge them. I also feel grossed out by the gratuitous cursing, period. You can't feel the delight of a good solid curse tossed as a spicy accent when it is used every other word. To quotes Spike Lee's Malcolm X, "A man curses because he doesn't have the words to say what's on his mind."
As a first generation American, I used to jokingly refer myself as a "coconut" amongst friends. This is a slur used against West Indian and Caribbean people. Does this mean that I welcome xenophobes cursing Caribbean people as "coconuts"? Of course not. I have a couple of gay friends who throw around the f-word with aplomb but I would never feel comfortable adding a gay slur to my vocabulary. I also just would not want to. As a writer, I also have no desire to ban speech. I just don't understand why other people want to use words that knowingly will hurt others on the other end. With so many words to choose from, why are we so limited?
I love the magic of words. Toni Morrison, William Shakespeare, and rapper Rakim are my favorite wordsmiths. I also get down with Maya Angelou, Jane Austen, Tupac Shakur, and Nikki Giovanni. These are all poetic magicians who make words dance with beauty and bawdiness.
That being said, Tupac's "n*gger" vs "n*gga" distinction doesn't work for me. Before you mistake me for being anti-hip hop, I am hip-hop. I am the rose that grew from concrete, as Pac said. In the communities I identify as my own, Queens, Brooklyn, and Harlem, we have the soil that created hip-hop under our fingernails. I was in a hip-hop group called Females Beyond Control when I was a teen. My awesome and respectable headmistress Mrs. Halpert called my parents in for a conference as she found this behavior troubling for Manhattan's Upper East Side. My whole debut novel Dare (Simon & Schuster) is built on the fantasy of a Tupac-like figure turning out not to have been really dead. This doesn't mean that I agree with everything he said.
I am more inclined to follow Richard Pryor's awakening and decision to let the n-word go. So for white people who want to, yes, use the n-word so that I know the disgusting and morally reprehensible people to avoid. Use it, so that I know the people I don't want to be friends or business associates with. Use it, so I know where not to shop.
The other day, Harvey Levin asked on "TMZ Live, "where is the outcry about rappers using the n-word?" There has been plenty of outcry about the n-word in hip-hop. Where has he been? Is privilege such that because the notes of the outcry don't pass your door, they don't exist?
I grew up in a home without cursing. My parents never used the n-word in my home. Actually, my parents have never even heard each other curse. "Damn," "pissed" and "hell" were considered curses in my home. When I met one of my best friends about 15 years ago, she was fresh from Texas and I was fresh from my parents' house. I don't remember the conversation, but our friendship was new and she said, "Really, bitch?" She was being friendly. I thought she was angry at me. Yeah, I was a bit green back then. Still I know that my bestie has no desire to call women she doesn't know the b-word.
We know who you are by the words you speak. You identify yourself with the venom or honey that drips from your lips. I am not saying that I have never used hateful language against anyone. Quite frankly, in college, I was a bit of a self-righteous jerk. But thankfully, I'm evolving, and continue to do so (hopefully) as a work-in-progress. And when we know better, we do better.
Writer to writer, it is not for me to tell Kanye West, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z or any other artist what to do with their creative work. I haven't walked in their path. I haven't lived their struggle -- and they haven't lived mine. I pick and choose what music I listen to as there are certain words I just don't want in my consciousness. None of us have the power to give others the right to use hate speech as a so-called "black pass."
As a New Yorker, I have friends of every culture. I have personally heard Latin-American people use slurs against Latinos, Jewish people use Jewish slurs, Italian-American people using Italian slurs, and Asian people use Asian slurs. I know white people who have called themselves "cr*cker." At no point did I ever feel like, "Great! Now I want to use these cool slurs!," no matter how close our friendships were.
It is not my job to police anyone's language. Say whatever you want, but know that there are repercussions. If hate speech floats your boat, go for it. You may then deservedly get fired, or broken up with, or ostracized. A rose by any other name absolutely does smell as sweet. That doesn't mean you should call it the other names. The n-word has the blood of thousands of lynchings, beatings, and other horrific crimes melded between its letters, meshed in its very fibers.
So, why do some white people want the right to use this abhorrent word again?