Wednesday, October 05, 2011

If We All Know What You're Saying, Just Say It

I really wish people would just say it... We have to get to a point where we're mature enough to understand when someone's saying the word as an insult and when you're actually just quoting something else. Those are actually two different things.

That was Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and one of their better writers. He was on the MSNBC show The Last Word on October 4, with guest host Chris Hayes discussing what is unfortunately the major political story of the past week. Texas Governor Rick Perry's family used to lease a hunting camp in west Texas that was commonly known by a name painted across a rock on the property. The word painted on that rock was Niggerhead.

If you are going to bring someone on to your political show to talk about this "story" -- that is, to pretend that there are new things to say about something like this -- Coates is a good choice. He frequently writes about the ways our nation's painful racial history bites us in the ass despite the widespread belief that we have put it all behind us. On this program, Coates repeated a point he has made in print as well: when a skeleton like this falls out of a politician's closet, the media focuses on the politician. As Coates wrote for The Atlantic, "I think this says very little about Rick Perry, and a lot more about the country he seeks to govern." He continues,

What we see on display [in interviews for the Washington Post story] is the insidiousness of racism, the way it gets in the blood, and literally alters the senses. A black woman in the county claims she was constantly addressed as "Nigger." A white man, in the very same county, claims that "Blacks were perfectly satisfied."

Several people in the story have no notion of why the name "Niggerhead" would be offensive. It's just what it is. I'm sure the people quoted recognize racism, on some level -- like say an outright lynching -- but if calling a hunting-ground "Niggerhead" isn't offensive to them, I think it's safe to say that white racism doesn't really exist as an actual force in their minds.

It also cannot be portrayed, in its own language, by journalists. MSNBC has a strict rule for its show hosts and guests: "the N-word" cannot be used even for the purposes of reporting this story. Hence, verbal gymnastics and euphemisms, as when Chris Hayes was forced to say that the stone at the hunting camp said "N-word-head."


Coates was visibly amused by this farce. Do we make the history go away by removing the ability to communicate directly and clearly about that history? When Hayes explained that he was forbidden to use the word, Coates said, "Well, can I use it?" Hayes said no.

The absurdity of this is that everyone in the room knows what is being said. Does an intelligent person need to be protected from the word everyone knows anyway? It's not a magical incantation that is going to summon Voldemort to destroy the earth. Or do we feel that no one understands the difference between quoting the term and actually wielding it?

It is a vile word. One should think twice before using it, such is its force and emotional impact.
Nothing above should be construed as encouragement to use that word freely. Yet the fact is that while mainstream media organizations ban quoting the term under any circumstances, it is in fact in widespread use and we have not put our painful racial history behind us.

All this accomplishes is to make it harder to discuss reality.

In a weird way, I am reminded of the tradition of covering inmates' heads with hoods when they were executed via the electric chair -- so that onlookers would be spared the sight of their faces twisted in agony.

The ban is phoney. It is, pardon the term, a whitewash. Coates is right. The indignity and degradation inflicted by this word is not diminished in any meaningful way by hiding the word, anymore than destroying photographs of slaves eradicates our history of slavery.

1 comment:

Kelly said...

Very good post, Algernon.