As I sit here pondering my life, my contempt for the recent decision in the Ferguson case, and whether I should have an extra slice of carrot cake before bed– I couldn’t help by contemplate the issue of race in America and the UK. Recently the British journalist and television host Piers Morgan, made some contentious comments regarding the use of the “N” word being commonly used both on social media, entertainment and within society – especially amongst African-Americans. Before some people question as to whether I have standing in this issue, or whether I am “qualified” to give my two cents (or dirhams, pennies…whatever) on this topic, I’d like to state that indeed I am a black female and also Muslim. I guess I’m what my mother would call me “double jeopardy” (largely in her opinion regarding the stigma I’m likely to incur due to my race and religious identification/manifestation).
The “N” word is a word that bares so many connotations to me depending largely on context, both in the historical and contemporary sense. It is a word I know for certain my grandparents generation certainly wouldn’t have used, they didn’t know what rap music was and if they heard it they found it a nuisance. The most plausible explanation is that people in Oman or Uganda don’t usually label people according to their race as they lived in a society that was not as multi-cultural like the Western Europe or the USA (people in those places identify by order of tribe. I have a tribe, but in the interest of not wanting to encourage nationalism or sectarianism I will not state this. Regrettably, it is a word that first I came to know by way of rap music and film during my early years prior to developing my knowledge of self and socially cognizant outlook on life – which I very actively promote.
In the light of Piers’ comments and the fierce criticism it has attracted, this has made me think of several issues within this storm along with questions, that Piers and many other people may not have asked or pondered. Of course these questions and the analysis that come packaged are subject to scrutiny and may spark debate – I’m ready for that:
Can you actually kill a word though?
Perhaps the amusing aspect to Piers Morgan’s suggestion is the notion that a word can be banned, eradicated or killed. One could easily beg to differ.
While I have a small margin of appreciation for the fact that some people (or even a majority of people in society) may find certain phrases and term socially undesirable, the “N” word, like any other racial, ethnic or sexually derogatory words is not one that can just be “killed” or phased out as and when Piers or any public figure pleases. Words are not like garbage that can easily be disposed of whenever one feels like it. I mean I couldn’t wake up one day and decide that a slang term or meaningless word should suddenly be banned irrespective of how compelling the reason is (well, perhaps in my own house or bedroom).
Words just like the views held by members of society are not something that can be changed overnight nor magically like the swish of a wand in Harry Potter; rather they have to go through socio-cultural evolution. This is where many people or the particular group acknowledge the history of the term, actualise the fact of and how it is degrading or offensive to the a specific person/group of people, and find measures to raise awareness and discourage its usage from the public domain – which may filter down to its non-usage in private settings. Such a process takes time to eventually discourage the usage, the example of the Afrikaans “K” word that was widely used by many white South Africans to disparage Black South Africans during the apartheid era, is an apt example of a word being gradually phased out using the above process – but even so, this has taken over two decades to be phased out. From this one can make the deduction that it is easier to change the institutions, labels and books but indeed it’s a battle to change the hearts and minds of a people.
Looking at the bigger picture: The role of the Corporations
The role of media and entertainment corporations is something that Piers Morgan (understandably) and some members of the public subconsciously (or out of financial expedience) ignore is the role that media and entertainment corporations play in the widespread usage of the “N” word. Again, by placing the burden of “killing” off the “N” word on black people, whilst dismissing the corporations’ role is looking at the situation very myopically.
Within the record company structures, the image often presented to the consumer is that the artists have full creative control over their content and have some level of influence under the label there are signed to. After all, it’s their music and artistry that generates money for the record label right? While this may have some elements of truth, nevertheless there has been some frugality on the part of the label. In the world where supply meets demand and business interests meet (and are subject to collision with morality and ethics), it is more lucrative and financially expedient to encourage an artist to write/produce music that glorifies violence, degradation of women, promotion secular liberal values and the manifestation of individual liberty etc.
Of course this is juxtaposed with the production of socially conscious music that encourages people to have self-knowledge and enjoin in the good, as exemplified in the disparity in media promotion given to contemporary stars such as Nicki Minaj and French Montana as opposed to the socially conscious artists such as Public Enemy, LowKey or M.I.A.
This is exacerbated by the fact that even in the acting industry; the portrayals of black people are usually ones that perpetuate stereotypes endorsed by largely white-owned media executives and directors along with actors, that give more weight to the size of their pay check than to the ramifications their depictions have upon members of the black community or the wider societal perception of blacks. Basically Piers, if you want the “N” to be banned from usage in the public domain, also make an appeal to the media companies and artists who give a platform such words to become common.
Does being white preclude a person(s) from participating in racially contentious discussions?
Being white should not be treated as an automatic ban or preclusion from engaging in discussions pertaining to race/ethnicity. I very much dislike the view (often held by some black supremacists and separatists) that white people should be barred from engaging with blacks on in issues affecting them. Such a mind-set does little to encourage cohesion and further widens the gap of understanding.
If anything, it is usually very helpful to engage with white people (who in many western countries are the ethnic majority) in gaining insight into how best to ameliorate the problem of racism, and foster a climate of peaceful coexistence in a racially and ethnically heterogeneous society. However with that being said, the comments made by Piers Morgan (albeit with the best of intentions) seems to only exemplify his lack of touch with everyday members of the African-American community – a demographic he fervently tries to “advise”. How? In explaining how Piers Morgan demonstrates the above, two points that are interlinked will have to be made here: white privilege and the attempt to absolve responsibility.
In addressing the issue of white privilege both in a general sense and specific to the proposal made by Piers Morgan, it is common knowledge (especially for people of colour) that whites incur many privileges upon the basis of their skin colour alone. This is seen in various aspects of life including education, employment, the criminal and civil justice system, media and travel – all of which filter and affect our perceptions and course of dealings with one another in both private and public settings, across various cultural contexts.
Homing in and relating this back to the topic at hand, due to Piers Morgan being a white, middle-class, middle-aged male, he incurs the benefits of not having to bear the brunt of racial superiority being exerted onto him nor the experience of being discriminated against due to his skin tone (whether systematically through oppressive government policies such as South Africa’s former apartheid system, Pre-Civil Rights America…or even colonialism!). Oh, and let’s not forget having to deal with the constant negative media portrayal of his race, culturally biased exams and school curriculum, stop and search/stop and frisk policies, living in low income neighbourhoods where crime rates, drug use and unemployment rates may be high – the list goes on.
Unfortunately, for many African-Americans living in the U.S. what I have just cited is a reality that many, especially those indoctrinated with the provincial view of American society espoused by Fox News, choose to ignore – because it serves as an opiate to placate the sensitivities of those who are not victims of such circumstances.
Furthermore, in Piers suggesting that “If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves” this only serves to alienate and irritate many members of this demographic – in turn, earning more criticism. Predictably albeit unintentionally, the likes of Bill Maher, Elizabeth Hasselbeck and Bill O’Reilly et al. will likely twerk to this tune as this suggestion is a poor and unviable attempt evade the guilt and accountability from the those that invented and used the “N” word as means of asserting racial superiority and dehumanising an entire race, and place the burden of policing the “N” word on Blacks who try reclaim the word from its oppressively negative connotation to one of empowerment. In other words Piers is absurdly attempting to place the onus on African-Americans (and the Black global community as a whole) to police a word that we didn’t want ourselves, rather foisted upon us by an inherent and systematically racist society.
For Piers Morgan, a white male who has never had to bear the brunt of such a term being used to denigrate his self-worth, nor the brunt of racism or the negative experiences that faces many African-Americans, to advise that black people should be responsible for “killing off” the N word reeks of hypocrisy and white-saviour-complex under the façade of “advice”. That’s like me advising members of the Indo-Pakistani community in the UK on the issue of the “P” word! That’s absurd!
The question as to if any success has been achieved in making the “N” word one of empowerment, endearment or in any way less threatening is not the issue here, and if this discussion is to take place, it is preferable that it is done in a way that is balanced and fair instead of being one-sided attributing the burden of responsibility to a particular group of people.