A Double Standard Worth Keeping: Race and the Differential Power of the “N-Word”

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 5/25/05

As soon as Oklahoma University’s baseball coach Larry Cochell was fired recently, for using the n-word during off-camera conversations with two ESPN reporters, I knew instinctively what some were likely to say. Though I am far from psychic, it hardly required clairvoyant ability to see what was coming.

Sure enough, the foreseeable dialogue found its way into my local paper, in the form of an editorial by one of Nashville’s most respected sports writers, Joe Biddle. His remarks would mirror several others to be heard on sports radio in the past few days, and appear, from my experience at least, to represent the views of large numbers of whites in America.

As Biddle put it, while Cochell’s choice of words to describe one of his players (ostensibly in a light-hearted manner), was clearly unacceptable and deserving of censure, it was no more offensive than the casual use of the same term by blacks themselves, on the playground or from a stage, as with the comedy of Chris Rock or Richard Pryor (the latter of which has actually stopped using the n-word for more than two decades, unbeknownst, apparently, to Biddle).

In fact, the difference between Rock and Pryor in this regard largely mirrors the divide that exists throughout black America. About half of African Americans, when polled, say the word or it’s derivative (the one that ends with “a” instead of “er”) should never be used, and the other half argues that it can be used among blacks in certain contexts, as an endearment, or a subtle but unhateful dis, or as a way to “reclaim” the term and arguably strip it of its power to injure.

But whether or not some in the black community continue to use the term, there is no reason why whites should audibilize it, ever. That Biddle (and probably most whites) would call this a double standard is irrelevant. Fact is, history has been a double standard too, and it is this history that explains why the n-word is so much more offensive when coming from a white mouth than the mouth of an African American. That most whites don’t know much about the history of racism hardly pardons us: it has been a willed ignorance, after all, and as such can hardly be used as an excuse for the phony claims of equivalence forwarded by Biddle, or any number of white high school students I discuss the subject with each year.

Simply put, the historic use of the n-word in the white community is not one of mixed meaning. It is not a history in which we called our black friends or colleagues such a term, as if it meant little more than “hey there dude, let’s go grab a burger and fries at the Mickey D’s.” In the mouths and hearts of whites, that word has only been used in the context of contempt, of presumed white superiority, of anti-black bigotry.

As such, for any white person to use it today is to force the black person hearing it to immediately wonder what’s behind the comment, what the speaker’s intent really is, in a way they don’t have to sweat as readily when spoken by another black person. History creates a natural and internalized warning bell for any black person hearing a white person use the word, which, if triggered enough can create psychological scars far deeper than most whites could ever fully comprehend.

But to understand the fundamental difference between the white and black use of the word, beyond its historical legacy, consider a similar example.

I am from the South, and frankly, have never much appreciated the word “redneck,” which is so often used against white Southerners, largely because I know it as a slur against working class whites, especially rural folks, whose labor in the sun would cause their necks to become “red.” Though I admit to having used it before, often in fact, I have resolved not to do so in the future because of its derogatory implications, and because, frankly, many in my family, going back generations, would qualify for the designation.

But having said that, I must also note that when Jeff Foxworthy tells twenty minutes of redneck jokes (as in, his “You might be a redneck if…” routine), I have a hard time taking offense. I don’t find the bit particularly funny, as it’s not my comedic cup of tea. But I don’t get pissed. And why? Simple: Jeff Foxworthy is in the family, so to speak. He too is a white Southerner; someone who could be viewed as a redneck; and as such, I can pretty safely assume he isn’t hating on his people or himself. Self-deprecating humor, while it can sometimes straddle the line with self-hatred, generally has a different feel than when someone outside the fold tells the same jokes.

In other words, if Jerry Seinfeld starts telling redneck jokes, we’re gonna have a problem.

It’s the same thing with Jewish jokes. I’m Jewish, as is my father’s father’s side of our family. For generations, Jewish comics have made a living telling jokes about our community. In fact, as a kid, I remember coming across several books of Jewish jokes in my dad’s old room, all of them written by other Jews. And while I didn’t think them very funny (after all, there’s nothing amusing about playing upon stereotypes with such quips as, “Why do Jews have long noses? Because air is free.”), nonetheless, I could assume this humor was emanating from a less toxic place than had it been published in a Klan pamphlet or church bulletin.

It’s sort of like the old playground wisdom that I can talk about my momma, but you had damn well better not do the same. Double standard? Sure. But so what?

That many whites won’t be able to understand this simple point is testimony to nothing so much as our own sense of entitlement. In other words, we are not used to anyone telling us that we can’t do something, or shouldn’t, and as such take great offense when our own freedom, including the freedom to offend, is constrained.

What else can explain the white hysteria over so-called political correctness, which, after all, was really never anything but the desire for folks not to be racist pricks, and to inculcate a norm of civility and respect for persons different from oneself?

I can think of no other reason than the desire to maintain a certain form of white privilege: the privilege of saying whatever we want, whenever we want, and feeling as though our right to lecture others on their behavior should logically take precedence over controlling our own.

In other words, the same privilege that (as the flipside to racism itself), has historically given the n-word its power to injure in the first place. As with all racism, it is power and position that gives a racial slur its ability to injure. This is why slurs against whites like cracker or honky seem more juvenile than truly offensive. And this is why the n-word, spoken by whites, is so fundamentally less acceptable than the same term spoken by blacks, however potentially problematic the latter may be.

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