Sticks and Stones: Can Claiming an Insulting Phrase Make it Right?
There is an episode of the Urban-oriented, adult cartoon show, The Boondocks, where one the characters, Huey, has a dream where Martin Luther King Jr had survived his assassination in 1968 and returned to the public eye. Over the course of re-acquainting himself with American society, he naturally finds himself a man out of time, but is disturbed by one, new aspect most of all.
During a rally that Huey puts together, hoping MLK would once again rally his people to rise to the challenges of a new age of oppression, the legendary civil rights leader suddenly does a 180. He instead begins lambasting the audience, who are fighting, drinking, and partying- not caring anything for the rally’s actual purpose, and telling them:
“Will you n***** please shut the hell up!”
The crowd is shocked into a dead silence, unable to believe that the hero of the civil rights era would even say that word. And the angry leader does address his disgust and dismay at being forced to use the word, but refuses to apologize and begins to criticize how Black Americans have squandered the opportunities afforded to them from the Civil Rights era.
Not Towing the Line
The rest of the fictional speech is not the point of this article, but I will make one more, real-time reference. A few weeks ago, controversial talk show host, Bill Mahr, got into a public scandal for referring to himself during a monologue as a “house n****”, and offered a rare apology soon afterward. On a following show, he had friend and former rapper/actor, Ice Cube, on the show, whom while he stood by his friend, wondered what the hell he was thinking saying that word.
Cube then goes on to comparing White people saying that word to twisting a knife, and that it was ok for Blacks to say because “it’s our word now. You can’t have that back”.
I am a 41-year-old Black male, and I have never, ever consented to using that slur, or believed owning the word somehow gave me or other Black people exclusive rights to it. I feel the same way about any other slur that has been ‘claimed’: bitch, f****t, ch**k, tr***y, or anything else.
As a child, I was raised that n**** was used to put black people down and make them feel like animals and inferior. This was while I was living in downtown Rochester mind you where I heard it all the time. It was a word invented by white slave-owners, adopted by southern, slave culture, and used to reinforce the atmosphere of oppression and hopelessness that tormented Black people living the south for decades. There has been or never will be any positive spin to that history.
So when I heard other Black kids use it so casually and not get upset (unless it was in the context of an insult), it perplexed me. If this word was so ugly and awful, why do so many treat it as if its not? And in fact, the only time where the word was truly seen as that old, southern slur was when a White person said it. And even then, some still got a pass when it came to White women having sex with Black men. Then it was ok for a White person. This contrast didn’t hit me as normal but as hypocritical. And I got in a lot of trouble for it.
"claiming insults as empowerment is often viewed as one of the few ways a people can maintain their dignity when it is actively trying to be stripped away."
The More You Know, the Less it Changes
As I got older, I began to understand more about the idea of empowerment and the many different ways oppressed people tried to attain it in situations where it was near impossible. Theologian, Howard Thurman, once said that people who have no power will look for smaller ways to gain some amount of it, even if in their own minds. A Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine will not insult a Roman company to their face, but will spit at the ground behind them as they marched by, believing that he/she was still better than them.
Another method was taking the weapon of the enemy and using it against them as a sign of resistance against what the oppressors represented. Though details and history vary, this applies to some of the other slurs I mentioned earlier in this article. When a woman who was a transgender came onto me, she referred to herself as a tr***y, and wasn’t offended when I used it. A year later, I was describing the encounter with a friend who was bi-sexual, and she was offended. When I explained why I said it and how I was given ‘permission’ to use it (which I didn’t even realize it was a slur at the time), she seemed confused why anyone from the LGBQT community would give such license. Like n****, it was a word only they were allowed to use.
This is not a new trend. Oppressed communities have been doing it for centuries. Even the term, ‘Christian’, originated as a slur against followers of Jesus Christ in the city of Corinth during the 1st century BCE. Ironic given what it has become and you could argue that it has become a slur again depending on your audience. Regardless, claiming insults as empowerment is often viewed as one of the few ways a people can maintain their dignity when it is actively trying to be stripped away.
I have seen this with other communities, dealing with my brother’s sexuality, conversations and arguments with feminists, and people who didn’t give a fuck. For them, often from two or three decades out from those who experienced the actual events, words like n**** and tr***y have no negative meaning in terms of why its there. They just know they can say it and outsiders can’t. Even if they knew the history, it means little to them as it was outside of their experience.
So I got it, why oppressed people claim and use slurs. Now here’s why I never accepted it.
Right by Conquest
While the commandeering of slurs to signify unity is understandable, it still doesn’t erase the original purpose for most of them. There is no original, alternative definition. We see this whenever someone who represents the oppressive power or bears some similarity uses the words, even if not an insult. Ice Cube would be right to compare it to a knife being twisted. Slurs can become racial and cultural memories passed down from one generation to the next. However, since the 1960’s, those communities underfoot have been fighting for what? Equality and justice.
They want to be seen and treated as civilized human beings and not animals or abominations. This is a worthwhile cause to fight for. At the same time though, the labels still carry the power of the original intent that they are inferior and abominations, no matter how buried or dressed up it is or what generation uses it. As one African, non-American said about n****, “It’s a heavy word”.
That is what it was made for, why it exists to begin with. If it wasn’t, if it did not still have that power, then why would we be upset when someone outside of our community used them in friendly context?
Secondly, claiming slurs becomes a double standard that those who actually do have malicious intent latch onto to justify their clinging to old prejudices and not showing respect. They call us hypocrites because instead of absolute justice as we said we wanted, it becomes conditional justice. And more so, it becomes about power. What is allowed in society is determined by who is wielding the bigger stick, not who has the better ethics.
The claimed slur becomes an imperial staff used to brandish our power and victory over those who enslaved us. Let me ask you, does this honestly and objectively seem like equality and justice to you?
Or maybe the better question is: does it even matter if it is or not?
Rising to the Cause
Modern American society is hypersensitive. We hear claims of equality, freedom, and tolerance, by those in power, and all but totally disbelieve it. Especially if they are privileged: politicians, celebrities, or the corporate 1%, we expect them to go back on their word later. We call this hypocrisy and once someone has been tagged as a hypocrite, it is damn near impossible to erase that stain from their image.
Racial, sexual, and cultural slurs are horrible and ugly words and they have been used to hurt others. To try therefore to claim it, as if that somehow purifies it in the holy waters of the righteousness blinds them to the reality that the foundation never changes. A slave will never accept their descendant using n**** as a point of brotherhood.
Slurs are supposed to be ugly or they have no power to oppress.
Now if someone is not trying to save the world or preach higher morals values, then they are more or less not accountable to them. They did not put themselves under that umbrella, or make the statement that they follow those values. So its consequences and rules do not apply. However, if they do step under it, then as much as we hate it, we become held to that preached standard. We can deny it and say, ‘fuck you’ all we want, but truth is others will use that weapon that we are trying to use against them, and double-down on their hate.
To stand for higher ideals, a respect beyond that of our base, natural instincts comes with a cost. This is something that every revolutionary individual and generation has come across. It demands them to fashion themselves to rise up to the challenges they call others to and often times this means sacrificing privileges they like to keep. When we do not, when we conditionally hold some people accountable for calling someone a n**** and not someone else, then we undermine everything we stand for and no amount of denial or moral justification is going to stop the physical ramifications of that playing out.