Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Paula Deen Problem: What's in a Word?

Now before you roll your eyes at yet another Paula Deen article that has been inundating the internet and airwaves this past week, hear me out. Paula Deen went and did it, I mean she really done it. First she went all scalawag on us and traded all that delicious grease and fat all southerners love in their cooking for some healthier alternatives. No doubt from the influences of shocked and dismayed Yankee neighbors and infiltrators among us. She couldn't just stop there though. She had to go and really show her ass by doing the unthinkable. She actually told the TRUTH about her usage of racial slurs and epithets about African-Americans, Jews, and other groups, including her alleged rampant usage of the dreaded “n-word.”

Needless to say, my fellow African-Americans were in quite the uproar; calling for everything short of Paula’s head being stuck on a pike and paraded around town before being posted at the city gates as a warning to bigots everywhere. Paula had to pay and pay she did.  She incidentally lost her day job at the Food Network for her racially wayward ways along with several big endorsements from retail conglomerates including Walmart and Smithfield Foods. Upon the breaking of the scandal by various professional and amateur media sources, Food Network immediately terminated her contract and pulled both of her popular shows from the air.

As the debate and drama continues to unfold for the controversial chef, an unexpected ramification seemed to have risen in the ranks of the African-American community. It seems that many African-Americans are finding themselves in one of three camps: those who want Paula to burn, those who are showing a measure of forgiveness, and those who couldn't care two hams and a biscuit about Paula or her apparent prejudices.

A major sticking point with the first two camps is the usage of the racial slur “nigger.” I think we can all be adult enough to agree that garbage by any other name would smell just as rancid, so for the sake of discussion let’s not try to pretty up a pig by putting lipstick on it. Dropping every letter but the first and hyphenating it to “word” does not somehow lessen the effects of it. Some believe that Paula’s past and allegedly more recent and regular usage of the word should condemn her to everlasting hell on earth with a possibility of parole in about, let’s say, never. The other side, although agreeing that her usage of the word is abominable, thinks that she should be cut some slack. Their reasoning is that the word has been popularized and used regularly by blacks. Of course, the debate on social media about this issue has become fierce.

Even though both of these positions could be explored in perpetuity, and Paula Deen can be demonized in countless ways, let’s talk about an issue that is even more profound surrounding the subject. There is a double standard that has arisen in the African-American community in respect to racial slurs that were traditionally used against the community by whites. When someone white uses nigger whether to degrade or belittle someone who is black or thought to be black, I can’t deny my first impulse is to serve them a quick jab right in the nose. However, when another who looks like me, coming from the same experiences as me, says the same word that boils my blood when uttered by others, ESPECIALLY white people, I view it as a warm term of endearment.  Now how the hell did that happen?

I can give numerous opinions from the black community taking a word meant to degrade and turning it into something of our own, thus taking the power away from racists oppressors, to just being raised hearing it so often among our peers that the word has somehow lost its meaning and is just that, a word. Some even argue that the word within itself is not the same word. Whites are thought to say the word in its original form ‘nigger.’ African-Americans on the other hand, use what is viewed as an entirely different word ‘nigga’ or ‘niggah’ depending on your region and dialect. Even though this argument may seem comical to some, some people actually stand by the reasoning, and it makes perfect sense to them.  The reality of it all is, no matter who says it or how it’s said, it’s still the same word and the meaning is the same as it has always been.

With all that being said, the point I tried to get across in many of the heated discussions on social media is this: How can we as a people get up in arms about a term that was used to degrade us for centuries when we are more than willing to accept and use the very same term so freely among ourselves? Not only that, but we have helped to export the word along with questionable images of African-American youth, men, and women worldwide for profit. So should we be the least bit surprised or upset when we heard of a clothing store in Taiwan called Nigger King or when people of all nationalities call us and themselves ‘niggas,’ mimicking the music and lyrics that we make popular? Why? Why are we not as upset when we hear children refer to themselves and adults as ‘nigga this’ or ‘nigga that,’ as we are at the white passengers on planes or in department stores telling black mothers to shut their ‘nigger’ babies up?

So that no one misunderstands, I’m not saying that we should not be angry. On the contrary, in the words of the late comedian Robin Harris, we should be “pissed off to the highest point of pisstivity.” We should demand that people in very public positions and responsibilities be made to answer to accusations of behaviors that influence how they treat minorities or any given group. We should actively speak out against and fight injustices as they come about. However, we should also be just as angry when we hear our children spout terminology that was used against our mothers, fathers, grandparents, great uncles and aunts to classify them as something less than human. We should be just as angry when we hear parents refer to their children with these derogatory names. If we are going to be angry, we first need to address ourselves. We cannot credibly hold the world to a higher standard that we are not willing to adhere to.

I struggle with the word nigger. In my short 37 years, I have gone from not really thinking about it, to becoming racially awakened and speaking out against the abuses of the white man while still using the word, to coming to a sort of truce by rationalizing it just wasn't the same when I used it. As I grow older, I realize that to hold such a position is not only a cop out, but does a great disservice to myself and to others within my community. I can no longer in good conscience get discombobulated when someone outside of my racial community uses this derogatory term without getting equally angry at myself for using the same term with impunity. After all, hypocrite, like nigger, is another one of those words that if called by a different name will mean just the same.

Male Media Mind