Monday, July 1, 2013

White People: You Know Damn Well Why

I am so tired of the faux, feigned, wide-eyed, or alternately enraged, “If they can say n*gga, then why can’t I?” coming out of the mouths of white people.
You know why.
You explain this to your kids (or I hope you do) all the time. Your five-year old says a bad word and defends himself by saying that someone else said it.
You tell him he’s not someone else, you don’t care what someone else does, he is him and he will not do it.

So, I’ll put it in terms you can understand: You’re not black people. You don’t get to say it.
And I’ll advise: Deal with it. Grow up.

You abide these restrictions all the time, in your daily life, and you expect them to be observed by those around you as well.
You can call yourself fat. I can’t.
You can call yourself stupid. I can’t.
You can call yourself ugly. I can’t.

You see, what we can say about ourselves is different from what others can say about us.

It has to do with our membership in a group, our part in a relationship.
My friend Shelly can call me “dude” when she’s irritated with me. You can’t. You’re not Shelly.
Relatives on the Adams side of my family can call me “Crane.” You can’t. You don’t know that story.

I can address my girlfriends as “biyatches” if I want to. But you can’t. Not unless you know them too, and we like you, and mutually agree to not take offense.
One of my best friends is Jewish. She can refer to herself disparagingly as a “Yid,” (a now out-of-fashion slur for Jews), but I can’t. I’m not Jewish. My Jewish friends can tell Jewish jokes too, but I can’t. I’m not Jewish.

My lesbian friend can call herself a “dyke” if she wants to. I can’t. I can only ever say “lesbian.” Same with my male homosexual friends. I can call them “gay.” I can’t call them “fag,” even though they call themselves that. 
Italian people can call each other “wop.” I’m not Italian, so I don’t get to say that word.
Mexicans can call each other “spic” or “beaner” if they want to. I can’t. I’m not Mexican.
There are some Irish in my family, and they can use the word “mick.” I can’t. I’m not the least bit Irish.

I live with these restrictions on my speech just fine. I make myself understood, I show my affection, or disaffection, as it may be, without resorting to ethnic or racial or sexual slurs. And I manage pretty well on a daily basis, so I know you can too.

You know what I can do? I can call people Russkies. Or dirty DPs. (Another old-fashioned slur.) You know why? Because I am one. Or descended from one, anyway. We can also sling around “Kraut” in our family, or could if we were so inclined, because there’s lot of German in us. But we don’t.

We all learn these rules about language, as kids. We learn what we can say, around whom, to whom. We learn that there are different levels of speech, that there are things you can say to your friends and things you can say to authority figures. You learn not to say certain things in front of teachers, preachers, librarians, cops. If the adults around you are doing their job, you learn that language isn’t just about words, it’s about power and respect and manners and feelings.

When my Russian-born mother and her siblings were together at family gatherings in the 1970s, when they were in their 30s and 40s and us kids were little, they’d get mad at each other and call each other “durak.”
I didn’t know what that word meant, though I knew it was Russian, and I knew it was powerful. Exactly how powerful, in what way, I wasn’t sure. Maybe that’s why I was fascinated by it.
When my grandmother was angry, she’d sometimes call my mom a “durak.”
Sometimes my mother would say, under her breath, “Durak,” when my Uncle Ben was speaking, and then everybody would laugh. Including Uncle Ben.
Other times, in a different, more heated conversation, Aunt Lucy might yell, “Durak!” at Uncle Ben. (He was always in the shit with them, one way or another.) And Ben would get mad and yell, “I’m a durak?”
“Yes,” Lucy would say, vehemently.
“Ty durak!!”? Ben would say, with a kind of implied “ha!” and then he’d slam his cup on the table, and walk out the door. He’d go to the back yard and smoke a cigarette and mutter darkly.

I was obsessed with the meaning of “durak.” (So much so that it might explain my career path, in fact.)
I kept asking my mom, “What does durak mean?”
She kept refusing to answer, or saying it was nothing, or shrugging. Then one day, exasperated after my years of pestering her about it, she finally said, “It means silly.”
Oh. However old I was when this happened — I don’t remember, exactly. 10? — but I knew that was bullsh*t. Why did she spend so many years refusing to define it if it meant silly? So I pushed a little, but she was firm. Silly.

When I was about 14, my mom and brother and I were having dinner with a Russian Orthodox priest. (Yep, you Russkies know where I’m going with this, don’t you?)
He was telling some kind of funny story and I remembered the one word of Russian I knew. I hesitated for just a moment, knowing I wasn't really convinced it only meant silly, but I also knew this was my chance to find out truly what it meant, to get a reaction. I was aware I had a tiny bit of power in my hands, to use that mysterious word, to wield "durak" instead of only hear others say it. I turned to my mom and said affectionately, “He’s durak.”
My mom’s face registered utter shock.
Uh oh.
I looked at the priest. He was blushing, a deep red coming up out of his chest, up his neck, to his cheeks, and right on up to his forehead.
Uh oh.
I turned back to my mom, protesting my innocence, already trying to apologize, and she smacked me across the face. I mean smacked—open palm, with effort. She’d never done that before. I began to wail, of course, saying “You said it meant silly! What does it mean?” and the priest was now utterly mortified, telling my mom it was okay, don’t worry about it, I didn’t mean it….

And I was so on my mom’s shit list for so long over that that I never dared ask again what durak meant.

Until I got to college. I asked a Russian language professor of mine. (The word wasn’t in our dictionaries.) He said it meant “dummy.”
Okay. Well, it’s not nice to call a priest “dummy” of course, but that still didn’t quite explain what happened that day. So I told him the priest story.
The prof’s mouth dropped open. Then he giggled, with horror. He explained that any slur in Russian is much stronger than its English equivalent. Thinking aloud, he said, “So it’s not dummy, exactly. It’s more like…jackass.”
Oh holy mother of god. I called a priest a jackass. I was mortified all over again, twenty years after the fact.
“Moron, ignoramus, retard,” the prof went on.
I finally got it. The word carried a soup├žon of contempt, of derision, of a kind that “silly” or even “dummy” doesn’t begin to capture. I never ever said the word to anyone again, even in Russia, where it might have been called for on occasion. I'd learned a lesson about my responsibility to use words with care, and the kind of thing that might happen if I didn't. (And I don't mean the smack. I mean that poor priest's face.)

It is long past time for white people to learn this lesson. You are not a 14-year-old girl using a Russian word without understanding its meaning. You aren't hurting people by accident. You are rather exonerating yourself before the act, trying to claim that the culture has got you all confused. You know better, but you think you’re being tricky by citing rap lyrics, some guys down at the bodega, and black comedians. You are acting like a five-year-old kid, and I’m not falling for it.

Words have power. They have a denotative meaning (an actual definition) and a connotative meaning (their history; and social/political/racial implications.) You can claim that you are 15 or 20 or 25 or 30 or 40 or 50or 66—and thus never owned a slave—and yeah, so what. I don’t give a flying f*ck about that and no one else does either. The word “n*gger” carries in its very DNA the power of a majority population to enslave and exploit and disenfranchise an entire minority people—thus that word signifies the entire social/cultural/political apparatus that was used to define and degrade people based on the melanin in their skin—and when you use that word, as a white person, you are taking up a position in that power dynamic.

(And that’s why Paula Deen is in so much trouble. Not because she used the “n-word” once, thirty years ago. But because she used it much more than that, much more recently than that. Just five years ago, she waxed poetic over a “plantation wedding” as if those “waiters” weren’t actually enslaved human beings. It’s like looking at a picture of a concentration camp and remarking about the lovely uniforms the SS men are wearing. It means you don’t grasp the human, historical, material reality of suffering people, historical as they may be now. And—not historical!—the black workers in her restaurants were required to use segregated bathrooms and entry/exit doors. Read some of the transcript, and you’ll understand why many companies no longer want to be associated with her.)

Anyway, the fact is: you know WHY you can’t use this word. So don’t give me this bullshit about “not understanding” why you can’t say it cuz Snoop Dogg does. You are not Snoop Dogg.

Just stop. Grow up. Show some respect. Take responsibility for making the world a better place, not coming up with “reasons” that you should be allowed to contribute to its ugliness.