Sticks and Stones

The childhood rhyme of sticks and stones is bullshit: words can hurt people. There is no such ambiguity regarding the N-word, a powerful example of linguistic evolution and understanding that words can hurt people and represent larger societal wounds.
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As an only child I used the word "brother" rather freely. Mine was a spoiled yet isolated upbringing and I envied the intimacy of siblings. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, Xavier, a black kid from my wrestling team, moved in with us. White friends playfully asked how I liked my new "brother," laughing at the double entendre, and Xavier's friends grilled him about living with the white family. Still, we gradually became like brothers, or as close as I imagined brothers being. He helped puncture my oblivious bubble of privilege by pointing out that people stared at us walking into restaurants and lining up my childhood with his. Soon I went to college at the University of Oklahoma where I joined a fraternity and acquired fifty new "brothers," three of whom were in my wedding. I had a boss who often called me "bro." Lately I've been hearing "brother from another mother," a phrase that rhymes its way into humor and affection.

We play it surprisingly loose and fast with language these days, especially given the dangerous immediacy of Tweets and Instagram pictures and Snapchat videos that defy the traditional safety of space and time, as the SAEs at my beloved alma matter found out when their unforgivably racist chant went viral. I paid close attention to the scandal. Though I wasn't an SAE I was still embarrassed, and it felt like the paradigms of my separate "brothers" had combusted in an ideological collision. Both situations reveal a problematic and, perhaps, irreparable paradox: on the one hand language is everything; on the other hand we don't always mean what we say - wait, that's wrong, it's that we don't always understand the weight of our words and the power they have to provoke and texture action.

The childhood rhyme of sticks and stones is bullshit: words can hurt people. And end friendships and start fights that do result in broken bones. But we alleviate that weight by reverting to simplistic analogies to discuss complex problems, social and personal alike, reducing the problem itself and preventing any chance of reflection. Pointless clichés such as "Everything happens for a reason" and "It is what it is" morph into personal mythologies about our own good intentions which, in turn, exonerate us from having agency in both our own lives and larger systemic issues. Personal narratives always spin positive; they paint apple red before anyone can notice the bruising. Defense mechanisms manifest themselves in language. If someone says they are unlucky then it immediately explains the accumulation of their life's failures, but it also reveals nothing and requires nothing. Sure, the person might be unlucky, but what if they are also irresponsible and lazy? Clichés gloss over the actual reasons behind our problems, many of which might be too personal to bear. If "it is what it is," then what else is there to say? The definitive ambiguity leaves no ontological space for it to be something else, such as a person we should breakup with or a job we should quit.

There is no such ambiguity regarding the N-word, a powerful example of linguistic evolution and understanding that words can hurt people and represent larger societal wounds. Using the N-word has become such a taboo that it isn't even uttered and bleeped-out on Comedy Central, where you can hear the traces of excrement and F-bombs. It's a volatile and offensive word that harkens back to our most despicable era. The N-word signifies that a person, due to the color of their skin, is less than a person - is actually less than an animal as Toni Morrison's character Paul D observes in Beloved, musing that a deformed rooster named "Mister" has more freedom than he does: "Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn't allowed to be and stay what I was. Even if you cooked him you'd be cooking a rooster named Mister." The farm animal's name (the traditional direct address of respect) reveals an even greater disparity between itself and Paul D, who was given the same first name as all seven of his brothers, the lot of them distinguished by consecutive letters in the alphabet (Paul A, Paul B, etc.), which was probably a moot point as they were mostly called, well, you know.

The enormous weight of this new social code - not saying the N-word - has consistent consequences: guilty parties are ostracized. Look no further than the SAEs, who were kicked off campus after the video surfaced of their chant: "There will never be a n***** in SAE . . . You can hang him from a tree but he can never sign with me." While I was most disturbed by the visceral lynching imagery, their use of the N-word garnered nearly all of the media's attention. The chant is impossible to justify and people immediately began cutting ties with the guilty party, from the University to the fraternity's national chapter. OU president David Boren made a decisive and scathing statement: "I don't have words in my vocabulary to adequately describe how I feel about people who would use those words in that way, and chant in that way." Note the specific emphasis on language, the chant itself so appalling that President Boren could not even find the proper "words" to explain his feelings; his linguistic horror silenced language itself. Even in writing this essay I went through a series of sentences and word choices and thesaurus searches to make certain my own disgust was evident. No one wants to be associated with a racist, and human beings distance themselves from those - ironically, in this case - being lynched, virtually and otherwise. It's like Peter said of Christ: "I do not know that man." One of my own fraternity brothers immediately posted on Facebook: "We need to kick those racist SAEs off campus ASAP." I responded, "Yeah, it reminds me of all the black members we had." Given that number was zero, there was no response. Granted, we never had any chants that featured the N-word but we also never brought a single African American to two-party day, the cherished last day of rush when all the best prospects return for hopeful bids. When I posted an article on Facebook about similar racist practices in the University of Alabama's sorority system another fraternity brother messaged me that we utilized those same practices (which was part of my passive-aggressive reason for posting the article) and reminded me that our chapter advisor warned that some alumni would pull financial support if we signed a black member, despite their grades or athletic ability. But, you know, we never "used those words" or got caught on film, so we were good.

Our own silence allowed our actions to continue, actions which universities should really be indignant over.

The Atlantic was quick to point out that the SAE chant is not an isolated incident, rather endemic to a cultural mentality that is oblivious - to say the least - to its own racist and sexist inclinations. It's a long history of pull-and-push between campus administrations and fraternities, with alumni money acting as leverage. If you Google "Fraternity kicked off campus" 146,000 results come up. Token scapegoats are often sacrificed for concrete crimes such as hanging a noose from the statue of the University of Mississippi's first black student, allowing the symbol itself to act as a non-verbal utterance of the N-word. At Cornell, fraternity members threw bottles at black students while shouting, "Come here, Trayvon." Such offences require hard evidence for punishment. So, as Elie Mystal sarcastically observed: "Thank God Sigma Alpha Epsilon's University of Oklahoma chapter dared to go above and beyond to prove their racism. Thank God they actually sang a song. Because they pretty much could have done anything else without anybody suspending them or even complaining about racist behavior." Well, not anything else, but the sentiment remains true: breaking the social code of using the N-word was the SAE's ultimate sin - along with being filmed. If George Zimmerman had been recorded calling Trayvon Martin a n***** he probably would've gotten in more trouble than he did for killing him. Then we would have really known he was a racist, once and for all.

I feel compelled to repeat - again, and in addition to the above evidence, lest I be associated with the guilty party as a fellow "frat boy" - that I'm glad people, in general, no longer use the N-word. This avoidance is obviously the right decision. However, I fear it's merely another example of how we use language as a defense that exonerates us from facing more legitimate social problems, most specifically deep and systemic racism. I mean, since we don't use the N-word, we can't be racists, can we? We just hang nooses from trees and call people "Trayvon." This linguistic decision is really miniscule gesture over a century too late. Slavery ended 150 years ago and we're just now curtailing the traces of its language? Aren't we a little late to the post-slavery party? Besides, language is slippery and adjusts on the fly. French philosopher and migraine producer Jacques Derrida taught us this, that language is fluid, allowing our personal mythologies to turn on a dime. For instance, after this postgame rant by NFL player Richard Sherman (who has a bachelor's degree in communications from Stanford), he was immediately virtually lynched and called a "thug" 625 times the next day on television. Hmm, I wonder what "thug" is code for?

I have a friend with whom I exchange emails about political issues. He is much more level-headed than I am and when conversations take a wrong turn toward the volatile the fault is always mine; he is constantly steering us back toward more logical waters. In the heat of email I've unfairly insulted him and he has not responded in kind. After I posted the above article about Richard Sherman on Facebook we exchanged some messages about race.

I argued that race was a social construct, making us all more vulnerable than we realized.

I put forth, given that race is a social construct, we're all racist. It's just a question of degree. He countered that racism was the same thing as hate. I warned that his was a dangerous approach as it prevented any self-reflection regarding his role in this larger social construct. It was his own personal mythology: if racism is the same as hate, and he is not a hateful person (which is 100% true, he is a kind person and a wonderful father), then it is difficult for him to see himself as the least bit racist. This personal platitude (racism is the same as hate) exonerates him from larger systemic disparity in the same manner not using the N-word exonerates us as a society.

Look, I'm not saying racism doesn't manifest itself in hateful and violent ways. That's obvious. Which is part of the problem: we only have an eye for the most blatant forms of racism, which lead to cosmetic "fixes" that don't hold, much less alter actual disparity. And we've developed ways of talking around it all that let us sleep at night. I do not think my friend is racist in the pejorative sense of the word, but I do think he's blissfully ignorant to the subtle and ingrained forms of racism currently permeating our culture, and he's flat-out told me he's tired of Obama playing the race card. And I don't think those SAEs would sooner see an actual lynching than have a black person in their house, but I also don't think they're interested in making their fraternity less exclusive in terms of coolness or color - I certainly wasn't in the drunken glory of my own fraternal days. It's further evidence that much of the country has developed an overall callousness that prevents any investigation into language acting not only as a subtext, but a foundational element in our continued systemic racism.

Which is why I wonder if there wasn't a more effective punishment for the SAEs, especially the two students who were expelled for leading the chant. There certainly wasn't a more appropriate punishment, historically and anthropologically speaking, as we are a people who exile rule breakers, especially when it comes to social codes. Again - have I repeated this sentiment enough? - the chant is appalling. There's absolutely no way around that. But I do wonder if the students actually learned anything about their individual roles in an organization that helps maintain the breadth of W.E. B. DuBois' color line, or if they think the color line is something you fill in with crayons. I imagine a large percentage of the students immediately retreated to new mythologies about political correctness and poor judgment and the chant being part of their fraternity's national tradition. The fraternity apparently hired Timothy McVeigh's lawyer and are considering a lawsuit. Such a response illustrates, as I warn my students, a "Screw me? Screw you!" reaction in which one party becomes defensive when an integral aspect of their self (collective or otherwise) is attacked. Escalation ensues, logic is lost, and the original argument forgotten or revised. When the privileged are ostracized they feel slighted and defensive, fall back on victim mythology and become angry, all of which makes self-reflection and intellectual discourse impossible.

The SAEs are not the first fraternity to get kicked off a college campus for heinous behavior. Terrance F. Ross, in The Atlantic article mentioned above, explains that "[e]ach time one of these egregious incidents comes to light, the national organizations are quick to sever ties with the local chapter, decrying the errant faction as some ailing part of a predominantly healthy whole. 'It's not our fault,' they seem to be saying, 'it's just these bad apples.' " Yes, bad apples. They're so easy to toss out. It's the exact reaction of the national SAEs and the University of Oklahoma: We are not like that; they are an anomaly to our otherwise pristine system.

But what if they aren't? In another denouncement of the SAE's President Boren stated, "Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect." So now the campus has been completely cleansed of racism? Such a statement further exemplifies this seemingly isolated-event mentality that ignores larger cultural problems on college campuses. Socially speaking, President Boren had little choice. If he doesn't ostracize the SAEs for their racism then his university is publically indicted as a racist institution. His swift action salvaged OU's reputation. But given the environment - an institution of higher learning - it's unfortunate he couldn't teach them something about the Greek system's place as a stepping stone in our historically segregated social structures.

The university has since announced that all incoming freshmen will be required to take a racial diversity class. One of the two expelled students met with a number of black community leaders, captains of the football team, and made a public apology. It's too bad the entire fraternity wasn't galvanized around this course of action. Too bad the SAEs weren't made the flagship students for that diversity class, didn't meet with black leaders and perform some community service in impoverished areas all while serving lengthy suspensions. It's too bad they weren't turned into a model of campus diversity instead of white kids exemplary of larger privilege that includes hiring an expensive lawyer. What if bad apples aren't the problem? What if it's the basket they're sitting in?

In June nine African Americans were tragically shot in Charleston's historic Emmanuel AME church. Soon after, President Obama argued, "Racism, we are not cured of. And it's not just a matter of it not being polite to say 'nigger' in public. That's not the measure of whether racism still exists or not." #ThanksObama, for stealing my rhetorical thunder and making this essay more divisive; it's difficult to feign neutrality with you on my side. That said, much of the response to this shooting put the very mythology I've been discussing on full display. As a country, we can not bear to see ourselves as fully racist, even when a white man walks into a church and executes nine black people; the motivation must be something else - must be anything besides a shared racism. Presidential candidates climbed all over each other to identify the act as "sick" and "twisted" and "horrific" and, what became the most prominent narrative: "Evil." Jeb Bush dubbed it an act of raw hatred. And the politicians were not alone. Fox and Friends instructed viewers not to jump to any conclusions with Steve Doocy spinning the psychology as "hostility toward Christians." Even after it was reported that Dylan Roof wanted to start a "race war" and told his victims, "You rape our women and you're taking over our country, you have to go", news organizations continued with their tagline of "evil." This rhetoric exemplifies an identical defense as my friend used above (defining racism as hate), only on a national level as opposed to the personal: it exonerates us as a nation and as individuals while impeding personal or societal reflection. If the act is definitively evil then ordinary non-evil folk such as ourselves certainly couldn't have had a hand in it, rhetorically or otherwise.

We just can't believe we can be systemically guilty when we're so linguistically diligent. I mean, he's the extreme end of the spectrum. A bad apple. Evil.

Dylann Roof is a product of us. American made. His ideology was constructed out of songs and jokes and symbols and Internet sites and geography not limited to but certainly centralized in the South. And there were warning signs. One of his friends said, "He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don't really take them seriously like that. You don't really think of it like that." We're back to the paradox. Sometimes people really do mean what they say - and sometimes they don't. Either way words are serious things. I'm not advocating for the humor police or the absence of jokes in a time when we could all use a little levity, but sometimes questions need to be raised. Sometimes people need to be told things aren't funny, that words do hurt people. Sometimes people need to be asked, "Do you really mean that? Because it's fucked up."