Let me just put it out there and get it over with; yes, learning that television cooking guru Paula Deen admitted to using “nigger” in a court deposition angered me. It doesn’t matter if some Black people, particularly young people, toss the word around because ignorance does not excuse ignorance. And while there has been the occasion when I have thought there was artistic justification for the word’s use, like Aaron McGruder’s controversial MLK depiction on his “The Boondocks” animated series, the word so rekindles the racism rooted in this country’s founding that it still shocks the senses to hear it uttered by a white person. Hearing that word come from a southern white woman with an antebellum drawl makes it that much more unsettling.
But to only be offended by this word and not the cacophony of racial tongues that one hears on a daily basis is to miss the point. If you are African-American it stands to chance that your daily life and circumstances are defined by a racial dialect that frames your civic and workplace experiences and status. It is not limited to white folks from the south who were raised during an era when all Black people were casually referred to by the ‘N’ word. No, the racial tongues are a creature of habit for many “good white folks.” Even whites who know better and profess to be rid of any racial animus often engage in coded racial speak that is as deeply flawed and injurious as the word that most inflames our senses.
This is the problem in America. We deny the past and then apologize for behavior rooted in our ugly history. Then we make ourselves feel good by isolating that ugliness to the southern quadrant of the nation and conveniently forget all that cotton and tobacco picked by Black hands had to be sold somewhere. There is no doubt elements in the south that cling to the past as some sort of cultural connection and in that sense they are in denial of the evil of slavery and Jim Crow. Yes, there is a distinct southern culture but it is rooted in the dehumanization of Black people for profit and a system that used physical violence and terroristic threats undergirded by a vernacular that contributed to the degradation of its Black progeny. But the story does not end there.
It’s not as if Black folks arriving north during the Great Migration were welcome with open arms. “Way down south up north,” as Black Eisenhower appointee E. Frederic Morrow coined for his book title was a destination where Blacks were quickly assigned ‘N’ word status and isolated in abject poverty. So, while Jim Crow did not fly up north, he certainly found a comfortable northern perch. It is somewhat amusing to hear northern condemnation of the south against the backdrop of the violence, poverty and residential segregation that defined northern life for African-Americans in the 20th century.
The truth is that even in the supposed best of circumstances for African-Americans, whether it is enrollment in elite schools and colleges or employment in white collar positions, we are often reduced to ‘N’ word status. It might not be projected as crassly as Paula Deen but its impact cuts as deep. It can be the dismissive attitude of white peers in the office who, despite your equivalent or better credentials and more extensive experience, deem you less qualified and treat you as an affirmative action exception. It can be the boss, white or Black, who benefits from your labor but still sees your less productive white co-worker as a more legitimate candidate for promotion. It can be your professor who upon sight judges you less capable and then embeds his evaluation of your work within that frame. It can also be a United States congressman whose outburst of “You Lie!” at an African-American President is so chock full of racial disdain that you can literally see the ‘N” word fly out of his mouth. And sometimes it’s your “progressive” friends who in their well-intentioned attempt to prove they are not racist make statements that are so deeply flawed and embedded with racial stereotypes you don’t know whether to be angry or holy forgiving.
You see, Deen’s real sin is allowing her innermost thoughts to be heard by folks like me. I am admittedly part of the Legion of Outrage but I too come to the race station with my own baggage because I am thinking, “Who is this cracker using the N word?” I can’t excuse Paula Deen but I sure do understand that her prior comfort speaking in racial tongues is not an individual flaw but a function of our historical psychosis.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com.