Paula Deen, Chris Rock, and The “N-word”
Michael W. Woods
June 26, 2013
By now, much has been said and written about Paula Deen’s poor choice of vocabulary in discussing the thorny issue of race relations in the US. Most, if not everyone, have taken sides; either, in the words of one on-line friend, “joining in the pile-on,” or attempting to excuse what people of common decency would deem inexcusable. Well known pundits, such as Bill Maher, have joined in the fray declaring the “n-word” (which Deen admitted to having used in her workplace setting in the past) to be just another word and, by implication, something people shouldn’t get too out-of-sorts about. Another southern chef, Michael Twitty, who happens to be African-American, has also weighed in on her use of the n-word. While he did not excuse her use, he did comment that for him the word had lost any power it may have once had. He then went on in his essay to use the n-word himself, spelling it out clearly and plainly, supposedly so that we, his readers, could see that it had no effect on him.
Has it? Are we now in an era where a hurtful racial epithet of the past no longer – or at least, should no longer – have any power to intimidate, humiliate, and oppress an entire race of people?
It seems to me this is the real public conversation taking place in the wake of Deen’s admission – not whether Deen or her supporters are racists. Of course they are – we all harbor prejudices and there is a little bit of racism in all of us, as Twitty himself observed. But even religious leaders are in disagreement over the question of the n-word’s current efficacy in our post-modern, multi-cultural society.
For the last couple of years, I have worked as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta, GA, and now currently in Columbus, OH. Prior to that I worked a few years as a solo pastor of a small rural congregation in Northeast Georgia. I recall a conversation between two of my chaplain colleagues about an incident that occurred at one of the many seminaries in and around the Atlanta area. A white minister addressed a gathering of students and faculty at the seminary. The make-up of the audience was racially mixed, with African-Americans comprising a significant percentage of those attending. During his address, the minister used the n-word causally several times. Many in the audience were shocked and offended, but the preacher continued on, claiming (as Maher and Twitty recently have) it’s just a word! My colleagues, both of whom are white and one whom was present in the audience, could not believe anyone in this day and age would be offended. After all, they reasoned, don’t Black entertainers like Chris Rock and Jay-Z use the n-word profusely?
First of all, it struck me as completely inappropriate for two white males to be deciding on their own what should and shouldn’t be acceptable or offensive for the Black community. That is obviously something the Black community should decide on their own – we whites don’t have a say in it, nor should we. And whatever African-Americans decide, we whites should respect that decision. The n-word no longer belongs to us – i.e., to the white community. In the past, we crafted the word, borrowing it from Portuguese and Spanish, and utilized it to impose intimidation, humiliation, and oppression on a race of people. But we lost any ownership and right to use we may have had over the word when Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement raised the conscience of the church, marched on Washington, and brought an end to legalized segregation. We lost those things, and rightfully so, because our legal right to intimidate and subjugate people based on race came to an end. For whites to re-assert any right to use of the n-word is to reassert the basis of our previous ownership of it – the right to oppress. That’s why it was wrong for Paula Deen to use the word so casually in her business, and why she needs to apologize for having used it. It’s also why Bill Maher has no authority to decide whether or not the word should remain hurtful to African-Americans.
Furthermore, it’s also why – even should the African-American community ultimately decide to reclaim the word in the same way that the LGBT community has reclaimed the “q-word” or women are currently reclaiming the “b-word,” as Twitty suggests – the n-word will never, ever belong again to the white race and we will never again have the right to its use without subjecting ourselves to charges of racism. Many (mostly whites) will proclaim this is not fair, but we have only ourselves to blame. This is the bed we made with the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.
PS: Michael Twitty’s open letter to Paula Deen, which I referenced several times in this essay can be found at http://afroculinaria.com/2013/06/25/an-open-letter-to-paula-deen/