Even though I understand why, it still seems strange to me that the majority of people use the phrase "the N-word." It reminds me of when I was a young girl, maybe 10 or 11 years old, and I wanted to say damn, but my parents did not allow my sister and me to use (what they considered) curse words. And, damn was off-limits, just like having cookies before mealtime. One day, I was walking up the hill outside of our house, trying to catch up to my sister who was quite a bit ahead of me. I kept calling out her name but to no avail. She couldn't hear me. In my frustration, I yelled out damn it. At that moment I felt grown up and free to say whatever I wanted. No restrictions imposed from above (i.e., parents).
Unbeknownst to me, my father was watching from the living room window, and he heard what I said. What I heard was a window opening and then my father asking in a calm and measured way, "what did you just say?". A chill ran up my spine as I stuttered and floundered, blurting out that I said darn it. Darn was as close as you could get to cursing in my house, and even that was iffy. I'd like to think my dad was amused by our exchange, but I don't know for sure. I scurried up the hill as fast as I could to avoid further questions and a possible grounding.
The wrong choice of words carries with it consequences
Fortunately for me, I escaped a punishment that day. More importantly, I learned a valuable lesson about myself and the person I wanted to be. The person I was expected to be regardless of if someone is listening or not, watching or not. Doing so means not having to cover anything up, to apologize later or potentially lose the things I treasure. Great lesson to learn at that age. I think the same temptation/lesson holds true for some people today. The N-word is heard in music and movies and spoken by some melanated folks. I understand that desire to speak what, in essence, is forbidden. It's the same reason I wanted to say damn. And, the reason I wanted cookies before dinner. It wasn't allowed. Of course in my formative years, I had no understanding of the ramifications from filling up on empty calories as opposed to having a nutritious meal. And on occasion, I would secretly grab a cookie even though I knew I wasn't supposed to. How much restraint is one expected to have at that age? After all, I was only 10 or 11. The same, however, cannot be said of an adult. Adults are expected to have learned these lessons and know how to select their words with greater care. To understand the ramifications of their choices. So when people like Phil Stair use the word to describe residents in Flint Michigan, blaming them for the water crisis or former Florida State Senator Frank Artiles, who called his colleagues the N-word, it speaks on a deeper level to ignorance, and quite possibly to their character and beliefs about others. Given the positions held by both of these men, the consequences for their poor choice of words was correct. But what about Bill Maher? A public figure with far-reaching influence and access to avenues most of us will never have. I rather see Bill Maher as a cautionary tale of a well-intentioned individual that lost his way. Temporary insanity, if you will. His poor choice of words is an opportunity to educate - him and others. To utilize his platform as a teachable moment for the masses.
But Wait, It's only a word, right?
Well, that depends on who you ask. The ability to paint pictures, incite others to action, convey messages, conjure visions, create moments of introspection, and to promote love or hate - words have that power. The N-word is akin to an incendiary device, and it carries a targeted message. The fact that we as a society do not directly speak the word is a testament to its heft. I would love to say it's only a word, but that's simply not true. The first time I heard it, and it was directed at me, yeah it hurt. Probably the second time too. But after that, nope. I'm in the business of living my life, no matter what friend or foe has to say. So words will not stop me in my tracks or reduce me to tears. They don't have that type of power. But I am not only referring to me in my current state because it took time for my thinking to evolve, for me to understand more about the world and the hang-ups that other people have about color. Countless others have been harmed, both directly and indirectly by the N-word. The physical, emotional and psychological damage inflicted over generations. Some people are still in process to figuring out what I have, others ingest the poison and it never leaves their system. They are the walking wounded. And then there are those that were not allowed to walk away or close an ear to the words hurled at them in their last moments of life. They can never recover.
Now there are advocates for redefining the N-word. There is also precedent for such a thing to happen. Words can and have changed over time, so it's not an impossibility for this to occur. But for right now, n*ggas or n*gger are one in the same to me. To a lot of people. Probably to Frank Artiles (now) and have always been for the colleagues he insulted by calling them n*ggas. Only time will tell what becomes of the N-word. I'll likely be long gone before this one is laid to rest or transforms into something else. However, I am hopeful that if/when the N-word comes to mean something else that the historical context does not also go by the wayside. In my opinion that would be a far greater tragedy.
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