Monday, July 01, 2013

This Is the "N"

I have to give credit to CNN's Don Lemon because when it comes to being who he is and stating his views, he really doesn't screw around or suffer fools lightly. He's out of the closet as a gay man and he has some very strong opinions on race relations and the way they should be covered by CNN and other news outlets. Personally, I agree with many of his beliefs and think that as a journalist with a wide forum he can be an invaluably powerful voice when it comes to challenging and changing the way racial issues are discussed by the media.

Tonight on CNN at 7pm ET, Lemon will be hosting a special called "The N-Word," which will supposedly debate the use of racial slurs like "nigger" and discuss whether slurs aimed at white people -- words like "cracker" and "honky" -- are comparable. To his credit, Lemon thinks that journalists or those referencing the word itself, minus any emotion or emphasis on using it to attack and demean, should be able to say the actual word "nigger" without having to self-censor. I think he's absolutely right. Way back in 2006, when Michael Richards had hell rain down on him -- fairly, I'd say, given the context of his rant, which happened as the result of his completely losing control of the audience at a comedy show and lashing out -- I wrote a lengthy piece on the dangers of not ever being willing to say out loud what we're talking about and instead trying to cheat in the name of glossing over the harshness of reality.

Here was the salient quote:

"The word 'nigger' holds an unparalleled level of ascendancy in our society. There's no better testament to the truth of this statement than the fact that otherwise educated, intelligent people -- the type who normally would rather step on a live land mine than be taken for an idiot -- will gladly allow themselves to be reduced to spouting the vernacular of a four-year-old to avoid speaking it.

No matter the alternative's power to offend and instigate, is there anything -- anything -- more painfully ridiculous than a grown man or woman saying, 'The N-word?' It's an absurd verbal tip-toe that not only proves that there is apparently no safe context in which the actual word can be uttered, but also that there exists an unspoken implication that those whom one would expect to be angered by the use of such a word are so stupid that they can't discern between the desire to dehumanize and subjugate and the need to openly discuss, and therefore should be protected from hearing the word altogether -- for the good of everyone. This latter possibility -- an indictment of an entire culture, whether out of condescension or outright fear -- is infinitely more offensive than the utterance of any one word."

I get that I'm a white guy talking about the use of an incredibly hurtful and derogatory term and I obviously haven't had to be on the receiving end of that word for decades upon decades. But when it comes to being willing to say "nigger" in a discussion instead of sanitizing it and, as Louie CK brilliantly said, forcing the other person to construct the ugly reality in his or her mind, I think we're basically being a bunch of chicken shits.

Don Lemon is trying to push an envelope that really shouldn't need to be pushed because, regardless of how offensive and oppressive a single word can be, we're all adults and I would hope can come to an agreement that there's a difference between discussion and dehumanization. No, I'm not looking for an excuse to say a "forbidden" word; I don't spend my day walking around being frustrated that the one thing somebody has asked me not to do as a white guy is an insurmountable personal crisis. I'm just not so sure we -- any of us -- should be talking like children in the name of submitting to language and a cultural reality that scares us.

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