A very dubious argument about the use of a certain racial slur

May 10, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 10, 2016

Author’s note: This post involves a racial slur and as such may not be appropriate for all readers, especially young ones. MEM

Larry Wilmore, host of Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show,” wrapped up the April 30 White House Correspondents’ Dinner in controversial fashion. He spoke for about 20 minutes, cracking jokes at the expense of many of the politicians and broadcasters in attendance as well as a few, for instance Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who weren’t. TV networks such as Fox and MSNBC got some flack, as did all of print journalism and C-SPAN’s audience.

Some of the wisecracks landed, like when Wilmore referred to Trump’s having said that if former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were a man, she’d fare poorly with voters and quipped, “[I]f Hillary Clinton were suddenly a man, her biggest problem would be finding a bathroom she’d be allowed to use in North Carolina.” But most of the jokes went over poorly with the audience, such as when Wilmore joked that Obama and pro basketball player Steph Curry both “like raining down bombs on people from long distances.”

Wilmore worked up to a pretty heartfelt climax. Near the end, he said, in all sincerity, “When I was a kid, I lived in a country where people couldn’t accept a black quarterback. Now think about that. A black man was thought by his mere color not good enough to lead a football team — and now, to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world.”

This earnest sentiment earned Wilmore one of his biggest ovations of the night.

But in the eyes of some, he undercut the moment with what he said immediately afterward: “Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if i’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my nigga. You did it.” The comedian punctuated the last two sentences by thumping his chest and pointing at the president.

The audience reacted with a mixture of enjoyment and surprise, if not dismay. Obama, grinning broadly, clapped and then stood up to embrace Wilmore enthusiastically.

There were, of course, a variety of takes on the Wilmore’s use of what some thought was the contentious word “nigga” and others thought was the even more charged term “nigger.” Some were accepting; some were disapproving; and some were — well, they struck me as being pretty far-fetched.

Thanks to Twitter, I was vaguely aware on Saturday evening that Wilmore’s routine had been somewhat controversial. But it wasn’t until Monday evening when I heard conservative talker Todd Schnitt devote a segment of his show to the use of the N-word that I gave it a second thought.

Schnitt and his callers — some of them older African-Americans, some of them white people of what struck me as a broader range of ages — were truly appalled by the use of the racial slur or its close cousin.

Some callers genuinely seemed to think that uttering the word, even in jest or admiration, in the vicinity of the president of the United States showed significant disrespect to the office and its holder. That isn’t an argument that I particularly agree with — intent matters a great deal, I believe — but at least it’s one I can understand.

Others, including Schnitt, who I find to be among the more reasonable conservative radio hosts, felt that having a word (or two) that can safely be uttered by black people but not by whites or other non-black people represents a more-or-less open embrace of segregation. I think Schnitt said something to the effect of, Why not return to the era of separate water fountains?

To be perfectly candid, I know there was a time when I might have agreed with this argument. It’s based on the principle that all people should be treated equally and that behavior that’s acceptable for one person, or for one group of people, should be acceptable for all.

The proposition is a noble one. But here’s the thing about sweeping rules: They may work well in a lot of situations, but they rarely work well in all situations.

The N-word is the most loaded word in the English language; the only competitor for that title is what I shall euphemistically call the C-word. I’m willing to carve out an exception for this slur given its nasty history and usage.

Non-black people who want to use the word n*gger in anything but an academic sense should feel free to — but they should be prepared to face the consequences, which include being branded a racist. Non-black people who want to say nigga should feel free to — but they too should be prepared for a variety of possible misunderstandings as to exactly what they said and why they said it, up to and including being branded a racist.

If you think this constitutes a double standard, even an unacceptable or hypocritical double standard, so be it — I can understand that, too. But if you really think that this double standard is really going to set back race relations in America half a century… Well, if that’s the case, I suggest you look at the disparity between white and non-white people when it comes to wealth, income, criminal prosecutions, home ownership, health care and a wide variety of other measures.

And after you’ve done that, you should ask yourself why you’d spend time worrying about a lack of equality when it comes to using certain words when there are other far more serious problems to address?

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