Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nigger Lover: Why We Love to Hate, and Hate to Love the N Word

“It is not what you call me, but what I answer to, that matters most.” - African Proverb

     A while back I was having a conversation with Rock, my co-worker and friend. We were discussing the hot controversy at the time, Don Imus referring to the Rutger's women's basketball team as "nappy headed hoes". In discussing this, Rock began a sentence by saying, "We have a responsibility as African Americans..." to which I quickly interrupted and said, "Hold up bruh. We're not African Americans." He replied, "OK, I guess you prefer to say Black. Anyway...". At this point, it's important for the reader to understand that I never miss the chance to aggravate Rock. It's part of the dynamic of our friendship. Seeing an opportunity to push his buttons, I again interrupted him....

  • Me - "No, African American and Black are not the same thing."
  • Rock - "How do you figure?"
  • Me - "Think about it. Ali (a guy we work with) is from Moracco, which is in Africa. Being born there makes him African. He is a naturalized citizen here which makes him African American. You're familiar the actress Charlize Theron aren't you?
  • Rock - "Yeah. White chick."
  • Me - "She's African American.
  • Rock - "You're getting on my nerves now. She's as white as the pure driven snow."
  • Me - "Yet, she's African American. She was born in South Africa and naturalized here in America. That makes her African American. We are of African descent, but born here in America. So to say that we are African American is simply not technically accurate."
  • Rock - "So what are we then?"

     As you can imagine, Rock was none to happy about this exchange, and he expressed that by muttering something about making my wife a widow. With the mention of one word I'd managed to enrage my friend, shamefully dishonor my ancestors and reveal my own internalized self hatred. What other word has so much power? What started out as a way to rankle my friends sensibilities instantly became far more complex. My short lecture on the proper use of the term "African American" was meant to be a self-effacing joke poking fun at the transitory appellations we've used to identify ourselves, and graphically illustrate an undeniable truth. Despite every moniker we've been called or gone by on these shores (Negro, Colored, Creole, Mulatto, Afro-American, Quadroon, Black, African-American, etc.) the one label that has never waned in popularity is nigger.

     Much like Periplaneta Americana, the term nigger has survived for hundreds of years and shows no signs of extinction. In 2007 the NAACP held a mock burial and declared it dead, only to see it to rise from it's tomb before the lid could be closed. In fact, nigger is arguably more resilient now than it has ever been in it's storied past. 

     Part of that past was it's inclusion in nursery rhymes. Agatha Christie's "Ten Little Niggers" is probably the most famous example, but "Eeny Meeny Miney Moe" provided my first recollected encounter with the word at around 5 years old on the playgrounds of Petersburg, VA. One of my running buddies at the time, Jimmy R. always used this rhyme as a means to decide who among us would be Simon for "Simon Says", "it" in Tag or any other chosen one for our various kids games. Up until that point I had always heard the rhyme like this...

"Eeny meeny miney moe
catch the devil by his toe
if he hollers let him go
eeny meeny miney moe"

Jimmy's version replaced the devil with "a nigger" and no one seemed to notice or care. Although I knew it was different than what I was used to, I just assumed that it was a nonsense word that Jimmy had made up to be silly. To my knowledge, I had never heard the word before. I remember being made aware of it's vile history just days after moving to Upper Marlboro, MD, when I used this very same method for picking an antagonist while playing with my new next door neighbors Micheal and Kenneth T. Both my mom and Mrs. T overheard my rhyme from the kitchen window and seized upon what I'm sure was a rather awkward and uncomfortable teaching moment.

     Jimmy's version actually dates back to at least 1888 when it was known to be the most popular version among American school children. Rudyard Kipling even included it in his "Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides" published in 1935. Most likely it has it's origins in early depictions of the devil as black as opposed to the modern red. The logic being that if you catch the devil by the toe it won't cause his horse-like hoof any pain. If you've pinched a human's toe instead, he'll most certainly yell, and since you've made a mistake identifying him, you should let your unintended target go.

...and The White House is in Chocolate City. Wear that shirt on your next trip here sir.

     Although theories as to the origin of the word nigger are several, it almost certainly has it's roots in the Latin word nigrum, which in adjective form is niger meaning "black". From that base, the Spanish/Portuguese and French adapted negro and noir respectively, then derived neger and ne'gre as pejoratives. According to Wikipedia, "In the United Kingdom and other parts of the English-speaking world, the word was often used to refer to people of Pakistani or Indian descent, or merely to darker-skinned foreigners in general". The pronunciation as we know it today most likely is the result of bastardizations of negro due to dialect; taking on its derogatory connotations around the 1800's. Thus, the most linguistically vile word known the world over was spawned.

     Unofficially noted as the worst insult in the English language, nigger has always been used to oppress. Like it or not, the historic significance of the word is deeply rooted in American history and is recognized as beginning its inflammatory definition right here on our soil. To argue that nigger is not as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie is to assert a position that one knows to be flimsy at best. The perception of the term as derogatory is related to the viewpoint of the Black race as sub-human. Historically, nigger defined, limited, and mocked Americans of African descent. Nigger suggested that Black people were inferior second class citizens. It was a term of exclusion, verbal justification for discrimination and oppression. Because of this, nigger often triggers deep-rooted hostility in Blacks. The word itself is aurally vulgar to the ear. When spoken aloud it almost emulates the sound one makes when vomiting.  

     My first recollection of being CALLED a nigger was in 8th grade. Obviously by that time I was graphically aware of the significance of this word. On the school bus ride home someone made a comment about a recent haircut Artie L. had and the resulting new style. At that point Artie (if you went to junior high or grew up in the 'hood with me you may remember him. He had a sister named Julie and there was only one Artie around) loudly remarked, "How do they cut niggers hair? (turning to look at me) Do they burn it or what?" Although the question was not specifically directed at me, by making eye contact there was no doubt as to who the dialogue was meant to address. Keep in mind that at the time of this exchange there were exactly two Black folks on the bus - the bus driver and me. "This (4 syllable expletive) just called me nigger" I thought to myself. Make no mistake when the word nigger is aimed at you, instantly the vestiges of your humanity crumble at your feet, and you impotently search for a response that parallels the insult hurled your way. Other than the sheer imbalance of racial demographic on the bus, I don't know what made Artie so comfortable that he thought he could utter this word in my presence. I did know that he wasn't happy that his sister and I hung out a lot. With most on the bus shocked into silence by the brazen comment, those who I considered allies were dormant. Now with all eyes locked on me and expecting a swift, violent reaction, I used the most lethal ammunition I had to retaliate. I remained in my seat and said, "The only thing I know about hair is that your sister sure does love to run her fingers through mine...and that's not all she loves to do." Standing to my feet, and now face to face with Artie I barely contained my vitriolic rage within clenched teeth and fists as I continued, "I don't see any niggers around here, but if you've got some more questions I can arrange for you to meet one when we get off of this bus. Would you like that?" Without answering, Artie got off of the bus at the next stop - two stops before his. From that day forward Artie side-stepped me like Rick Ross does the gym.

Rick Ross and his Maybach 64. A big man needs a big car.

     The word nigger is the linguistic equivalent of defecation. When one uses it, they do so in full awareness of the systemic power that the the word evokes. Nigger instantly changes the power dynamic. It is a verbal equalizer. This why so many, especially bigots and racists choose to traffic in such hateful language.  They know that if they say it or use some new age code for it (ghetto, hood, etc) the message that it delivers is that a Black person is always and already understood to be comparatively lesser than. This is specifically why in a moment of defeat, one can always fall back upon nigger to reclaim the upper hand. This is precisely the answer to the often asked question, Why can Blacks say it when other cultures cannot?" and why Blacks who use the word freely and often are vehemently opposed to other cultures using it; the dynamics of power. Caribbean-American writer/poet Audrey Lorde put it like this...

  • "So much of the European-American consciousness is based on its affirmation of greatness and superiority in contrast to the wretchedness and inferiority of Africans. With European-American consciousness comes the birth of this nation, and with this nation comes the molding of the concept of the African descendants born here. The very consciousness of the nation is based upon the precept of Caucasian supremacy and African inferiority."

A brand of golf tees from 1920.
      In short, nigger is inextricably tied to a history of despotism and tyranny, and in the mouths of other cultures instantly emasculates it's target. What is of interest to me is why do other cultures wish to have permission or be free to say nigger? In exactly what situation would it be appropriate? What non-racist reason would one have for using it where something else wouldn't be better received by just about any audience? It's interesting to note the example of Eminem, one of the most popular rappers on the planet for the past 12 years. His considerable talents and skills as an MC have made him well respected within a Black dominated genre and the music industry in general. No stranger to controversy, Eminem has liberally used profanity, lyrically fantasized about homicidal/suicidal tendencies and publicly embarrassed other celebrities by suggesting clandestine intimate relations with them...and that's just within one album. Despite his tendency to invite conflict and controversy, Eminem has been careful not to add nigger to his repertoire' even though he may actually have the rep and credibility to pull it off in the right context. Put simply, Em's too smart for that. Despite the liberal use of nigger in the rap genre, he realizes that coming from his larynx the interpretation is dubious at best, and possibly career ending. Let's be completely honest. Other cultures don't need permission to use nigger because in all likelihood it is already a part of their vocabulary. Simply because one has established enough sense of self preservation to not use it in the presence of Blacks further illustrates why it shouldn't be used by other cultures OR Blacks. 

      Some may be asking why some Blacks insist on cart blanche to use nigger openly and freely. For a plethora of reasons, it is my opinion that we shouldn't.  In our mouths, it is the apogee of self loathing.  Yet much to my chagrin, I occasionally find myself disgorging this most hated term. Considering that I'm in the middle of writing this I've been much more sensitive to when and how nigger bullies it's way into my vocabulary. In the past few weeks, here are the contexts in which this bile has spewed from my mouth... 

  • "What the?!? Aww, HELL no nigger!" - Upon realizing a motorist in gridlocked traffic was driving on the shoulder and splashing muddy water on my recently painstakingly detailed car, then attempting to cut in front of me.
  • "No, and I won't hear from him. That nigger owes me money." - When asked by a friend if I'd recently heard from a mutual acquaintance of ours.
  • "THAT nigga is clearly insane" - My inner dialogue (muttered audibly) after concluding a conversation with a guy in Chipotle who had titanium implants placed under the skin of his forehead to create "devils horns", apparently a body art thing that all the cool, yet obviously deeply disturbed Goth kids are doing.
     For clarity, the targets of my venom were culturally diverse, but that is not the point. What this reveals to and about me is the depth in which I've internalized and how I personally define a term that I despise. I use nigger as an expression of idiotic behavior and as a descriptor in situations that cause me stress. Put succinctly, I use nigger as a substitute for expletives. I am not proud of this. I wish it weren't true, yet there is no denying that in situations where I'd like to use profanity because I've been conditioned not to I subconsciously substitute the next best thing - a word that I know has the power to dehumanize, dismantle and surmount it's target.

     My usage and every other Person of Color's (there's another one!) usage of nigger perfectly illustrates the schizophrenic hypocrisy of our relationship to it. We are completely repulsed by the word, yet as a culture we perpetuate and cannot separate ourselves from it.  Propagated in slavery, cultivated in racism and infused with oppressive ideology, the culture of American born persons of African descent suffers from the psychological damage/post traumatic stress resultant of an unrelenting systematic second class citizenship to this day. If one is told they are a nigger, forced to live as a nigger, and treated like a nigger from 1619 to present, a nigger is what you become. So nigger becomes a parasite; a semantic tapeworm left untreated to destroy it's host from the inside out, eating away at the souls of Black folk (shout out to W.E.B. Dubois), persistent and determined to suck the love, pride and self-respect right out of us. As a result, nigger becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. It is we who treat each other like niggers, we who live as niggers and call ourselves niggers.  

     Blacks have probably been calling each other nigger since the words inception, not as a pejorative necessarily, but generally as a term of identification. For my Uncle, a product of the pre-civil rights rural South, nigger is synonymous with any person of color. About 10 years ago he proudly told me how times were changing down South as the South Carolina town he lived in had elected it's first "nigger mayor". Use of adjectives also further defined intent. "Bad nigger" is a term first put upon particularly "hard to break" or rebellious newly arrived slaves. It evolved to describe any Black man who defied or stood up to "the man". It became a term of respect within the black community. In contrast, "Dumb-ass nigger" is obviously not and pretty self explanatory, but it is the "dumb-ass" that determines it.  See what I mean about schizophrenic?

NWA (Niggas With Attitude) was one of the most influential rap groups of the 80/90's
     No medium has done more to bring and keep nigger at the forefront of the nations consciousness than the genre of Rap Music, a predominantly Black art form. Used liberally in lyrics, many rappers have said that in the post Civil Rights era nigger no longer carries the power or definition that it once did; that it has been reclaimed and reconceptualized as a term of positivity. Tupac Shakur, a legend in the genre and an icon of the music industry, even went so far as to redefine the word on his own terms. Drawing a distinction between "nigger" and "nigga", Shakur asserted that the former was a term of oppression while the latter was a term of empowerment, creating the acronym N.I.G.G.A. from the phrase "Never ignorant getting goals accomplished". He claimed that the referencing one hears on rap compositions as "niggas" is meant as a positive affirmation. Although I respect Shakur's undeniable poetic/lyrical genius and applaud his attempt to galvanize the culture to self-reverence, any exercise to do so cannot start with the language of it's oppression as a foundation. No matter how you choose to spell it, nigger is so stigmatized that any attempt to redefine it falls flat. One would have to completely disregard the notion that slavery and Jim Crow ever happened. Publicly calling one another “nigga” and “my nigga” in song lyrics, comedy routines, film, and television underscores the self-image dilemmas of Blacks. The fact that we continue its use constitutes a logical fallacy on our part. For Blacks to think that we can use the word harmlessly without question while others cannot is not only irrational, but duplicitous. Said plainly, we cannot empower ourselves with the weapons used to destroy us.         

     Some have suggested that the context in which nigger is used can redefine it's meaning and determine whether or not it is offensive. Examples of this can readily be found in popular music and movies. It's not unusual to hear "niggers" where "fellas" or more disparagingly "dummies" would suffice, and female rappers routinely use "niggers" to refer to men in general. Another example of context is when nigger is used as a term of endearment to express camaraderie, friendship, or even favorable opinion (EX. "I can always count on Mike. That's my nigga, right there." or "That nigga Roger Federer is a beast on the tennis court!"). Earl Simmons, aka DMX wrote "I love my niggas, shed blood for my niggas" in one of his songs, which is clearly meant to express devotion. While context can change the intended meaning of words it cannot change history, and the history of the word nigger cannot be overlooked. Nigger carries with it images of hatred, brutality, injustice and domination. Contextualized uses of nigger cannot transform its historic definition no matter how one tries to "reclaim" or to put a positive spin on it. A word that has it's origins in hate cannot express love. Nigger is so deeply rooted in the negative that it can’t be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. Use of it as such is a glaring testimony to the self concept of the user.

     Sticking with that for a minute, I know of no other culture that uses a term meant to decimate them as an expression of affection. Most would not tolerate the use of a slur, let alone perpetuate it within it's own community. The best example of this is the Jewish Nation. Any insulting language or disparaging portrayal is met with swift and definitive resistance. Attempts to paint the community in a negative light are simply not tolerated. In 1996 when Michael Jackson, arguably the most famous entertainer on the planet used a Jewish epithet in his song "They Don't Care About Us", he received so much negative feedback and pressure that he issued a public apology, went back into the studio to re-record the song using alternative lyrics AND included a written apology in all future pressings of the album it appeared on. Despite his assertion that the song was meant to denounce racism, the point was that anything considered to be detrimental to The Jewish Nation regardless of its context was and is unacceptable. Stop and think about that for a moment. The biggest and most influential star in the entire music industry was forced to apologize and alter a song that had already been released and distributed. The message was clear - disrespect of Jewish culture would not be tolerated in any form, by anyone, for any reason. The Jewish Nation said “never again”, they meant it, and obstinately protect the image and honor of the culture.

     There is also the argument that the regular and repeated use of nigger vitiates it, removing it's power. Two people who are seemingly in this camp are Quentin Tarantino and Aaron McGruder. Tarantino shocked many with the liberal use of nigger in his brilliant film Pulp Fiction (28 times), then again in the not so brilliant Jackie Brown (38 times). One of the most memorable scenes (of a movie filled with them) is an exchange between Butch and Marcellus.  Marcellus, portrayed by Ving Rhames (who is Black) is bribing Butch (Bruce Willis), a fledgling boxer to take a dive in a boxing match. At the end of a compelling monologue, Marcellus extends an envelope full of large bills across the table to Butch and states as much as asks, "You my nigga?" As Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" plays in the background, Tarantino allows an uncomfortable silence to linger before Butch takes the envelope and finally answers, "It certainly appears so." Tarantino has stated that he is "...a guy who is not afraid of the word. I just don't feel pussy-footing around the whole racial issue." Aaron McGruder, creator of the edgy Boondocks comic strip is apparently cut from the same cloth. Nigger is regularly used in the animated version of his strip. In 2006, McGruder courted controversy when he resurrected Martin Luther King Jr. to see what had become of his dream. Upon viewing a little BET and experiencing some generally ignorant behavior in the community, MLK becomes frustrated and asks, "This is it? Some 40 odd years later, this is what I took all those ass whoopings for?! A bunch of trifling, good for nothing niggers?" McGruder has said that when everyone is referred to as niggers then it loses it's stigma - there will be no more niggers in the negative sense. It's interesting to note that nigger is usually used by short-tempered, hot-headed and socially corrupt Boondocks characters, and almost always in a negative manner. It's also interesting to note that in Pulp Fiction although Butch took the money, he did not take the dive and ultimately ends up saving Marcellus' life, effectively demonstrating that he never was, nor was ever going to be his nigger.

Waste expensive champagne? Sure why not? I'm selling a lifestyle, right? 

      Most disturbing may be the commodification of the word nigger. In our society, certain words are associated with particular conceptions, lifestyles and cultures. Nigger associates with the word ghetto and ghetto associates with 'hood, an abbreviation for neighborhood . All 3 words evoke images of a predominantly black, lower class of people. If we are to be honest, it would be hard to argue that ghetto and 'hood aren't kinder, gentler buzz words for nigger in the context of expressing something as less than desirable. Despite this perception, the so-called "ghetto" or "hood" culture has informed and driven popular culture for the past 25 years in the music, movie and fashion industries, and greatly influenced dance, art and literary culture. So-called lower class black styles are heartily consumed in all of these areas. The domination of Rap music on the charts, the proliferation of "hood" themed dramas and comedy's in movies, and the popularity of "Urban" novels all attest to the overwhelming influence of street culture on America. The vast majority of these espouse and glorify a "ghetto mentality" and reference nigger repeatedly. With every "nigger" uttered, the disrespect of ancestors, community and self is continued, marketed and then sold back to the community like a prize to be cherished rather than despised. As a result, the hood mentality is what is believed to be representative of the culture as a whole. Commodified to the point of prostitution, nigger has been one of the best money making ho's the entertainment industry has ever turned out, and guess who the tricks are?      

There is no mistaking the influence of "urban" marketing here.

     Although we refuse to admit it, there is no denying that nigger is a fetishized colloquialism. As alluded to earlier, nigger is seen almost as a taboo indulgence to some; an articulatory forbidden fruit that when indulged opens a societal Pandora's Box, yet rewards with the satisfaction of usurping power from an opposing source. When we use it, our target is immediately reduced to "less than" while simultaneously establishing us as dominant. This is why we hate that we love the word. It exposes a part of our character that we wish didn't exist. On the other side of the coin, we love that we hate the word nigger. We hate the word because of all it represents and the painful past it manifests. By publicly denouncing nigger, we alleviate ourselves of the labels that go along with it - ignorant, racist, ugly, prejudice, hate, oppression, etc., making us feel superior to those who engage in such language and attitudes while simultaneously establishing them guessed it, "less than". This is the main reason why Chris Rock's wildly popular skit "Black People vs Niggers" has proven so popular. It verbalizes a tangible separation of lower class behavior from middle and upper class mores'. So ultimately, we love to hate and hate to love nigger for the very same reason - classism. Whether we use it on others or denounce others use of it, with nigger the viewpoint is always, "I'm better than you". Regardless of whether we like it or not, in a country that on one hand would be willing to enslave a people while simultaneously proclaiming the glories of democracy, nigger stands as a definitive lexiconic illustration of our society until we relegate it to nothing more than a history book point of reference from the long ago, unenlightened past. 

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

--James Baldwin


Thursday, May 26, 2011

Personal Foul - Inappropriate Use of the Race Card, 40 Year Penalty

     A recent experience on the job got me thinking once again about the subject of race in our society. The work I do often has me in situations where I'm overseeing large groups of workers in the process of construction within residential areas. The overwhelming majority of the laborers are Hispanic, their immediate and secondary supervisors are from varying cultural backgrounds and then there's me.  More often than not, the residents of the neighborhoods are primarily Caucasian and often "well to do". Such are the demographics of many Northern Virginia 'hoods. I've had several "colorful" encounters with homeowners regarding the labor force.     

The antagonist is a mullet wearing redneck stereotype. Irony.
     What usually starts out as a conversation about the invasive nature of the work and how we plan on restoring lawns to their former glory often detours into concerns about the legal status of contracted workers. Most folks present themselves as normal functioning members of society in these conversations, while others resort to their baser instincts and come out blazing with the most ignorant of approaches. What is most disturbing to me is those who calmly and assuredly spout a cliched', bigoted and stereotypical ideology with the assumption that I am in concurrence with their backwards line of thinking. That being said, let me tell you about a recent encounter with a homeowner...

     This gentlemen wanted to speak to someone about how we intended to complete the work w/o damaging his irrigation system. I was called in to explain the process of how we deal with challenges should they arise. After some brief dialogue he seemed satisfied with my answers. Now relaxed, he remarked how professional, efficient and diligent our workers had been to that point. I guess on some subconscious level I found the remark to be a tad bit condescending (as it assumes that one was expecting otherwise, and his inflection had more than a little bit of surprise), so I acknowledged with a nod of the head as opposed to verbally. I guess he interpreted my nod as an invitation for more commentary. With a friendly pat on my back and a jovial delivery he continued, "...and what in the world did we do for manual labor before these fellas jumped the border, 'eh? Hehe!"

     At least in MY head the entire tone of our conversation had changed. As he waited me to co-sign on his statement with a light-hearted chuckle or maybe a well placed, Rochester-like, "You sho' nuff is right about dat boss!", I saw no hint that he detected even the slightest thing offensive about what he had just said. So as his words dissipated into the ionosphere, I answered his question with the first thing that came to mind. Almost as a reflex I looked him in the eye, smiled and said, "Well, I believe it was called Chattel Slavery."

     As the thick sarcasm dripped from my words, that "deer in the headlights" look on his face gave way to an introspective smile. He exhaled and said, "Wow. That was pretty racist of me, wasn't it?" Again, I smiled and told him, "No, I don't think that was a racist statement - prejudice and stereotypical, yes, but not racist." The easy nature of our previous dialogue allowed us to continue talking and have a decent, productive discussion about immigration, civil rights, race and The Constitution. It made me think about how we are so often quick to emblazen people with the scarlet letter R(acist), when in fact the majority of these infractions do not rise to that level, and in the process we diminish the impact of the label by appearing to cry wolf.

     One of the most blatant and ridiculous examples of this occured in May of 2010 when the local Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP accused Hallmark Cards of producing a graduation card that plays a racist message, claiming that the card's microchip includes the phrase, " black whores, you're so'd better watch your backs". Hallmark said the message was being misunderstood. The card's theme is the solar system and emphasizes the power of the grad to take over the universe, even energy-absorbing black HOLES. The card company says the card speaks about the power the grad will wield. "The intent here is to say that this graduate is not afraid of anything," explained Hallmark spokesman Steve Doyal.

The offending card
     But that's not what some people heard. As if the L.A. Chapter of the NAACP didn't have bigger fish to fry, they created such a stink about this that Hallmark voluntarily ceased production of the offending card and pulled it from all it's stores and partners throughout the country. This was done even before it became fodder for the national media. Here is a link to the story. . It is my opinion that the L.A. NAACP wasted a colossal amount of time and resources that could have been more scratch that...ACTUALLY productive had itf focused on something of substance.

     So what actually qualifies as racist? Does every cultural slight or misunderstanding automatically fall under the umbrella of racism? For me, this is a many tentacled serpent; born of intolerance and a somewhat blissful ignorance in many cases. There is a level of naivete that some people are comfortable with when faced with customs/cultures different from their own, thus they don't do the work necessary to dig below surface. Not every jackass who says something so wildly inappropriate as the guy I encountered above is a racist. Here is how I see it....

Stereotypes - When I told the homeowner that he was stereotyping, I was referring to his statement about the laborers "jumping the border", which is disparaging characterization of Hispanics. Websters defines a stereotype as "a simplified and standardized conception or image invested with special meaning and assumed common by members of a group." In short, we make assumptions about people based on the group we percieve them to be a part of. In it's most base form, a stereotype is a generalization attributed across the board that reduces a subjects complexity. Whether they be positive or negative we associate certain things with specific groups of people. Stereotyping is shallow and lazy, but we all do it. It's practically programmed within us to unsubstantively assign certain behaviors to particular groups that include but are not limited to race, gender and culture. We also stereotype by nationality, class, domestic region, profession, creed and age just to name a few.

He must be smoking weed, right?
     One of the common stereotypes I experienced when I had dreadlocs was the assumption that I smoked marijuana. I cannot count the times that someone approached me asking where they could get some "sweet ganja." The most memorable was one weekday afternoon as I was taking a long bike ride along the G.W. Parkway and stopped to rest in Rock Creek Park. I'm catching my breath on a bench when a proper looking young hipster in a shirt and tie nervously approaches and sits down next to me. He extends his hand for some dap, and in his best "down with the brotha's" contrived dialect he says, "S'up my man. You got some weed? Don't give me that stuff you usually give the white boys. I want that good s**t you smoke, dawg. I can handle it. I"ll pay top dollar." I suppose my responsive smirk and head tilt displayed my disgust. He says, "Hey I'm sorry. You're not holdin'?" I replied, "Every brother you see with locs doesn't smoke weed." Now he's in damage control mode. In an attempt to save face, he replies, "Hey whoa, dawg. You don't understand. I LOBBY for you people." How reassuring.

Prejudice - Sitting a rung higher on the ladder of socially awkward faux pas is our tendency to form unfavorable opinions beforehand without knowledge, thought, or reason. Fostering beliefs without knowledge of the facts is the crux of prejudice. Websters defines Prejudice as "unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group". I would take it a few steps further and add gender, sexual orientation and class. In the minds of the ignorant and willfully uninformed, prejudice is the fuel that stokes the fires of discrimination, bigotry and racism. When you encounter someone who is unusually resistant to argument backed up by fact, their prejudice has overtaken their rational thought. For example, when we lived in upstate NY we had a neighbor who was deathly afraid of Black men. He would scurry into his house when my dad came home. It turns out that he had been violently mugged by a black man and associated all black men with this incident. Irrational yes, but the trauma of that incident imbedded a deep seated prejudice/fear that was triggered by his direct proximity to melanin and testosterone in equal quantity. He wasn't scared of me because I was, like 3 at the time.

 Bigotry - A bigot is most often identified as person who is hostile to those of differing race or ethnicity, but that definition is to simplified. Bigotry cuts an even wider swath than stereotypes and prejudice, because it incorporates them within the bigots ideology. Bigots have an iron clad devotion to their own opinions, presumptions and viewpoints. They postulate that because they regard an opinion, it's the Gospel. They generally have animosity towards anyone with differing beliefs. Bigotry encompasses intolerance towards just about anyone that doesn't think, act or look like the group the bigot embodies.
     An incident that sticks out for me was when I was 16 and working at a local theme park then known as Wild World, a kind of wildlife preserve/amusement park hybrid. It is a Six Flags today. As the safari train tour guide, my job was to identify, describe and spew amusing anecdotes about various wildlife we encountered as the train traveled leisurely through the preserve. On one ridiculously humid August day I noticed that one man had ridden the train several times in a row. He was sitting near me in the back, kind of sideways in his seat. Each time around he seemed to be listening rather intently - half observing the animals, half observing me. As the train pulled into the station and passengers filed out for new ones to board, again he remained in his seat and this time struck up conversation. "Hey son, you're pretty good at this." he said. I thanked him and asked if he was enjoying the ride. After some more small talk, he cut right to the chase. "So tell me, of all the people who applied for this job...why do you think they chose you?" he asked. Well, ask a cocky 16 year old a question tailor-made for self aggrandizement, get a cocky answer. "Because I was hands down the best one for the job" was my half-joking, succinct reply. Very slowly, he chose his next words carefully and said, "My son applied for this job. Are you sure that it was because you're the best, or because you're Black?" Even at 16 the implication was clear to me. He was suggesting that I was a quota hire, inferring that my blackness somehow made me less qualified than his son.  I wasn't so much as insulted as I was shocked by the directness of the question. Since he was so direct with me, I felt no hesitation at being direct right back with him even though he was a grown man. In fact, I smelled blood in the water and relished the opportunity to retort. "I'm the best. If your son were better he'd be holding this microphone and my dad would be riding the train over and over. In second thought no, he wouldn't. He'd be more productive with his time. Has your son found a job yet?" Ok, maybe that's not a good example of bigotry, but it's a darn good story.

Racist -  The big kahuna. This is the broad brush with which we unceremoniously slap anyone who utters anything that can be construed as a slight to people of color. Before I get to a definition I'd like to cite another ridiculous example of someone being unjustly labeled a racist. Back in January of 1999, the newly elected Mayor of Washington DC, Anthony Williams appointed David Howard as Ombudsman. In a budget meeting attended by 3 other people, Howard, who is White, casually remarked that he would "...have to be niggardly with this fund because it's not going to be much money." A fairly abstruse word, Niggardly means "miserly" or "reluctant to spend" and obviously has more than a passing phonetic resemblence to the racial epithet with which we all seem to have a love/hate relationship (I'm working on that note next).

     Let's be clear - a better word choice would have been "frugal" or perhaps "penurious". Because his co-workers (both white and black) were uninformed on the words meaning, Howard was accused of crassly making a sneaky reference to black folks being poor, cheapskate tightwads. Unmoved by the fact that the word is NOT a racial slur, the gatekeepers of Negrotopia stamped him a racist and declared him not worthy of his appointment. In short order the Mayor was accepting his resignation.

The Ace of Spades.
     David Howard found himself standing in the soup line for the crime of possessing a copious vocabulary. Because his co-workers and the majority of those who heard of his comment didn't know the definition of the word, they jumped to conclusions and commenced to publicly flog him until he declared his name was Toby. In affect, the linguistically obtuse majority cried wolf and derailed his career path.

       So what actually constitutes racist behavior/thought? It isn't as cut and dry as we have made it to be. Racism certainly employs all of the other catagories mentioned, but what it basically comes down to is unbridled hate within an ideology and malicious intent. A racist holds and espouses a system of beliefs that harbors hatred and absolute intolerance for a race, culture or ethnicity different from their own and therefore, assumed inferior. defines a racist as someone who 1)"employs a doctrine that inherent differences among the races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others." or one who exhibits 2)"hatred or intolerance of a different race or races."

      While no one will argue that racism isn't the main ingredient in social discrimination, racial segregation, hate speech and violence, I would argue that we have become so sensitive and ever vigilant to these things that more often than not, we elevate a smaller infraction to the level of racism. This is a dangerous practice. This muddies the waters enough to demonize and ostracize the naively innocent offender while attenuating and expulcating the offenses of the truly guilty. The practice of crying racism at even the perception of the most minuscule of cultural transgressions has given birth to the concept of victimology, aka "the race card."

      Most people define the race card as using ones race, or introducing race as a factor as a means to gain an advantage in any number of situations. Others say it's a way of explaining away or blaming current abhorrent behavior on the atrocities of the past. I say it's a rather ambiguous term that seems to selectively morph depending on who is using it and for what purpose. As a concept and technique, what the race card should be is an effective means to directly personalize a situation or event for someone of a different ideology or culture; to manifest a mindset that they otherwise wouldn't conceptualize. In short, getting an opposing party to consider something from the vantage point of your shoes. If the race card was exclusively used in this manner, it would be a powerful tool for tolerance and cultural acceptance. Unfortunately, it is more often misused.

  • It is used to relate offenses to racial bias...

WG - "I heard the cops pulled Victor over and searched him last night."
BG - "Yeah man, what did you expect? It's because he's Black. They do us that way."

  •  It is used as a way of generalizing, racializing and claiming desirable attributes...

WG - "Wow, LeBron was on fire last night! He's an amazing athlete!"
BG - "Yeah man, what did you expect? It's because he's Black. We're just made that way."

  • It is used to excuse personal shortcomings by blaming some uncontrollable cultural phenomena...

WG - "I heard Cam got caught stealing computers."
BG - "Yeah man, what do you expect? He's Black and poor. How else is he gonna get a computer?'

The race card is just as often employed by those who feel that it gives someone other than themselves favor, power or precedence. These folks use it as an accusatory tool to gain a sympathetic ear.
  • It's used to belittle someone else's accomplishments...
OG - "I heard Maria made partner."
WG - "That's what I heard too. She's Latina you know. Obviously an affirmative action promotion."

  • It's used to justify someone else's ascension over them...
WG - "Weren't you under consideration for that spot?"
OG - "Yeah, but she fits the demographic they needed. I didn't.

These folks actually love the race card. It gives them the option of being able to accuse someone of using it for undeserved gain. The accusation chips away at the other parties credibility and creates doubt about their ability, intent or accomplishments.

     Considering all of the above, we should be careful to understand what actually rises to the level of discrimination and when the label of racist is justified. A co-worker of mine suggested that we establish some kind of football style penalty flag to help officiate and watchdog cries of racism...

BG - "I'm in the market for a new truck."
Salesman - "You're in luck. I've got a top of the line Escalade on sale over here. It's got 20 inch chrome wheels and everything!"
BG - "Oh, 'cause I'm Black you assume I want a flashy Cadillac? You're a straight up racist, man!
Ref - (tweeeeeeeet!) "Personal foul! Inappropriate use of the race card! 5 year penalty."
BG - "5 year penalty!??"
Ref - "You've set the race back at least 5 years with that over the top accusation."

...or how about this real life example...

Congressional Committee - "Judge Thomas, did you talk about pubic hair on a Coke can and sexually harass Anita Hill?"
Clarence Thomas - "I"m being subjected to this high tech lynching because I'm black!"
Ref - (tweeeeet!) "Flagrant foul! Perversely ironic use of the race card by a guy who opposes Affirmative Action after directly benefiting from it! 20 year penalty!" 

One of the most interesting plays of the race card happened recently when the CEO of Godfathers Pizza Hermain Caine, a 2012 republican Presidential hopeful who just happens to be black, remarked that "...people are over this first black president thing. Don't condemn me because the first black one was bad."
     No discussion of the race card is complete w/o mention of Willie Horton, OJ Simpson and The Birth of a Nation.

     Willie Horton is the black convicted felon who escaped a Massachusetts prison while on furlough and proceeded to assault a white couple in their Oxon Hill, MD home. After beating, binding and stabbing the man, he raped the woman and fled the scene in their stolen car. George Herbert Walker Bush (the first President Bush) featured Willie in a compelling political ad during his campaign, implying that if you elected Michael Dukakis (his opponent), he would unleash the Willie Horton's of the world to wreak havoc. Dukakis had been supportive of the Mass. prison furlough program. The not-so-subtle subliminal of the ad was a play on the fear of black men as sexually veracious and violently criminal - two pervasive racial stereotypes that unfortunately, Willie was doing his best to personify.

     The pivitol point in the OJ Simpson trial was the introduction of evidence of Mark Fuhrman's past racial transgressions. The defense successfully created reasonable doubt by in part by painting Fuhrman as a racist cop hell bent on framing the gridiron legend. Prosecutor Chris Darden accused the defense of "pulling the race card", and rightfully feared that it would trump the prosecutions own "gender card." The result was a jury more sympathetic to a targeted, black male celebrity than to an abused wife.

     Arguably the most talented film maker of his time, DW Griffith brought The Birth of a Nation to the big screen in 1915. Considered a groundbreaking film, Nation is significant for pioneering the camera techniques deep focus, jump-cut, cross-cut and facial close-up, which are now considered integral to the industry. At 3 hours and 10 minutes long, it is still one of the lengthiest commercial films produced, and a cinematically beautiful, propogandized race card that is credited with the resurgent membership of the Ku Klux Klan. Originally a play entitled "The Clansmen" written by Thomas Dixon Jr.,  Nation recounts the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction through the eyes of Southern whites who vehemently opposed the political/social progress made by newly freed African Americans after the Civil War. It openly depicts southern blacks as vicious and lascivious, their northern white allies as cunning, unscrupulous, and arrogant, while southern whites are sufferers of repeated political and sexual indignities at the hands of white northerners and black southerners before literally being rescued by the gallant, hooded riders of the Ku Klux Klan. Historian Thomas Cripps has characterized Nation as “at once a major stride for cinema and a sacrifice of black humanity." The Birth of a Nation went on to become the most admired and profitable film ever produced by Hollywood, replaced finally after 1940 by Gone with the Wind, another film about the Civil War, Reconstruction and "gallant Southern cavaliers."

A still from Birth of a Nation
     Up for debate is the accusation that Ronald Reagan's rise to prominence may have been assisted by the race card.  While on the campaign trial, Reagan often told the anecdote of the "welfare queen", perhaps not with racial intent but with racial results. The commonly associated image is of an unmarried, jobless black woman with multiple children and baby-daddies, shamelessly mining govt. assistance programs.

     So going forward, how are we to address "the race card"? As on so many occasions, the immortal words of Kenny Rogers can be called upon to provide wisdom. "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away and know when to run!"
  • "Hold 'em" when a racist comment or action is simply indefensible or unattributable to any other reason. Imagine a guy who dresses like Boss Hogg and sounds like Foghorn Leghorn says to me, "Hey boy, come over here and shine my shoes...and if you sing "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" while your doing it, I just might give you a coupon for a grape soda and a 3 piece at KFC. Or maybe I'll let you pluck a nice, sweet nigga'fruit from my watermelon patch." I'd say it's safe to call that guy a racist.  
  • "Fold 'em" when it is fairly reasonable that your concern is due to something else. Just because the waitress told you about the fresh, "asparagus spears" instead of asparagus tips doesn't mean she's Marge Schott.
  • "Walk away" if your possible reaction to a perceived racist offense could land you in jail, where you will undoubtedly encounter more racists...with criminal records.
  • "Run" when you're in a sundown town, or the black guy in a horror or war movie.
    "Sundown Towns" used to prominently display signs like this, but no longer. Some still exist, and you'd better darn well know when your in one. If your ever in Forsythe, GA, keep it moving.
     The simple, ugly truth is that when you dig below the surface of our id, prejudice, bigotry and racism are only multi-layered, self-centered survival instincts. It's about a dominant group attempting to keep control of resources and keep others outside of that dominant group from taking or sharing those resources. The race card shouldn't be an ace-in-the-hole, under any circumstances, when-all- else fails, last ditch effort to turn the tide in your favor. Doing so desensitizes your intended audience, leaving you and the other party a little less discerning to discrimination. At worst it trivializes actual racism.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Joe Ennis, Where for Art Thou?

     An old acquaintance from high school and I were exchanging thoughts over Facebook the other day and somehow or another Joe Ennis was mentioned.

     A tall, slender, wavy haired man with a stoic personality and a properly conservative suit collection, Joe Ennis was the most obdurate math teacher at our high school. I remember him quite vividly as I had his class a couple of years in a row and absolutely dreaded it. Firstly, I was never very good at math and definitely struggled with anything that didn't involve counting money. Secondly, I thought Mr. Ennis was, oh, how do I put this...the devil. He could be evil incarnate. It seemed as if he singled out a couple of us in his class for his particular brand of ridicule. He would call on you to answer a problem either verbally or on the chalkboard, and then unleash one of his time worn zingers on you if your answer was incorrect. As if being wrong wasn't public humiliation enough for the average high schooler, Mr. Ennis put an exclamation on the end of it with something like this...

(actual Joe Ennis one liners)

- "Russell, if they put your brain in a bird it would fly North for the Winter!"

- "Russell, you would need twice as many brains to be a half-wit."

- "Russell, I sure hope you find a way to make some dollars 'cause you almost never make any sense."

These indignities were hurled with the smooth, mellow cool of a Quiet Storm DJ, publicly and loudly for the entire class to enjoy, so I did everything  possible to avoid his calling me to answer a question. Although everyone fell victim to Mr. Ennis at some point, it seemed that his favorite targets were me and this other kid named Xavier. We'd blend into the background in an attempt to somehow becoming invisible so that Joe wouldn't call on us for ANYTHING. And God forbid he caught you daydreaming or distracted. The verbal public flogging would begin anew.

     That Facebook exchange got me thinking about the last time I saw Mr. Ennis, which was 3 years after I graduated at a high school homecoming game. As always he was immaculately groomed.  He was wearing a cream colored, 2 piece matching ensemble, ironed to perfection w/matching Stacy Adams. This was the first time for the better part of 7 years (he'd taught in my junior high as well) I had seen him dressed in anything other than a suit. I sidled up next to him as he was watching the game...alone, by the fence...

me - "How are you Mr. Ennis?"
Joe - (slowly looking me up and down, then returning his gaze to the game before speaking) "Russell...your looking well, son. What are you doing with yourself these days?"
me - "I'm in school sir. Studying communications."
Joe - "That's good to hear. I see you doing well with that."
me - (jokingly) "Well, we both know I needed to stay away from anything math intensive."
Joe - (finally turning to look at me) "You know, you could have done much better in my class. You never really gave it your all did you? (looking me straight in the eye) Well, did you?"
me - "Mr Ennis, I'm just not good with math. I know the basics but anything beyond that is Greek to me."
Joe - "You know Russell, you're much smarter than you give yourself credit for. If you would use that head of yours for something other than a hat rack you might realize that. (pulls a $10 bill out of his wallet) Go get me some popcorn please son...(turns back to watching the game) and be assured that I will count my change."

     Regardless of the fact that he rode me constantly, in his own unique way he was always encouraging me to strive a little harder. Call it the "shut me up by proving me wrong" methodology. Xavier and I took great pride in shoving it back in his face on the rare occasion that we did answer a question properly. So why was it that Joe Ennis rode us harder than the other students? I'm guessing that it was because like Joe, Xavier and I were the only Amer-Africans in the room.

      In retrospect, I've realized that Joe Ennis was one of only a few teachers that left an impression on me in a way that most other teachers didn't. Was it because he gave me such a hard way to go, or was it because he was essentially a relatable figure as a black male? So I started thinking about something. Outside of Joe Ennis, how many other black male teachers had I had? Of the teachers that I had from the time we moved to Maryland (4th grade through 12th) he was one of only two black males. Mr. Ben Cumbo was the other. In fact, with the exception of Mr. Vaughn Johnson (an art teacher in Junior High) and Mr. Alvin Jones (a substitute teacher) I don't remember encountering ANY other black male teachers. That was 25+ years ago. So how are black males represented in the school systems now?

     Unfortunately, stats show that my kids (3 and 5yo) will probably have an experience that parallels mine. In the state of Virginia (were I currently reside), 2.6% of the 100,908 teachers are black men. In fact, only 1.7 percent of the entire nations 4.8 million public school teachers are black men. Now I can imagine that you're saying that it shouldn't matter what color the teacher is or whether they're male or female as long as they are an effective teacher. You're right it shouldn't. What that line of thinking doesn't account for however, is the subconscious role model/mentor effect that naturally occurs when ones teacher is representative of you. Also consider this - nearly 50% of black male students do not complete high school in 4 years. Black males take fewer AP classes and are suspended or expelled at a higher rate than other groups.

     If we are to be honest, there are basically two influencing dynamics within the majority of the nations public schools - a female cultural and an Anglo-cultural. We have to ask ourselves where do black male students fit into this and is it one of the many factors contributing to the above cited statistics? Again being honest, a young black male can seem a menacing, baleful character, especially in the pubescent years when all kids are developing their personalities and testing the boundaries of authority. Considering that black males are America's go-to boogeymen when just about anything shady goes down, and that we all have been conditioned to associate them (and by 'them' I mean us) with a certain amount of negativity, it's not a stretch to think that Ms. Crabtree might be just a little terrified of this student demographic. Rightly or wrongly, the name " Da'Quan Washington " is going to carry with it certain imagery and connotations that " Chad Wellington" does not, but if Mr. Jefferson is teaching the class it may not matter. Do you get where I'm heading with this?

      In a nutshell, black male teachers expose students to black men as authority figures, can help students feel that they belong, motivate black students to achieve, demonstrate positive male-female relationships to black girls and provide African American youths with role models and mentors. I honestly believe that if every black male student had just one dedicated, black male teacher for every year they were in school, test scores and graduation rates would go up and discipline problems and drop out rates would go down significantly in these demographics. Black kids want black male teachers to relate to. The black females need them just as much as the males. A strong, positive black male influence might make the difference in the standards she accepts and choices she makes in her relationships with men. 

     Another possible advantage is the fact that male teachers in general tend to approach teaching a little differently than their female colleagues. Men are by and large more tolerant of chitchat and more likely to integrate active learning methods, including competitions and games, into the curriculum. They also tend to use more humor as a teaching method. According to Stephen Jones, an educator and author of "Seven Secrets of How to Study", "men tend to give more direction in their approach to sharing knowledge. They want to appear to be the expert.” Women, on the other hand, are more likely to collaborate with students and incorporate their ideas, Jones says.

     So why aren't there more black males teaching? The Civil Rights movement may have actually had an adverse effect on the number of black male teachers. Before integration, the education field was one of the major avenues available for those with higher education. Hence, someone would major in a field, be denied the chance to truly make a career of it, so they taught the subject to others. Since the civil rights movement  Blacks have encouraged their sons to explore other fields of study as more opportunity was available to them. Whereas earlier generations may have had more emphasis on uplift of race through education, today’s generations may have more focus on attaining the so called 'American dream'.

     Another possible hurdle is the stereotype of teaching being "women's work". Most men are going to avoid a profession that is seen as less than macho or perceived as a woman's domain. In order to attract more men we need to change the perception and redefine the description. The key may be to downplay the spinster image and emphasize the mentoring/role model aspect of the field.

     The major component however, most likely is financial. According to a USA Today survey, the average teachers salary nationwide is $46,752 per year. In the majority of this country, that's simply not enough for most people trying to support a family. When men do go into the teaching field, an even more pronounced disparity of male teachers is created at the early childhood and elementary level because most men will favor positions at the high school level where the possibility of subsidizing income through coaching is greater. Which brings us back to the mentoring/role model.

     Going back to my experiences, despite only having limited contact with them, both Mr. Jones and Mr. Johnson were role models to me. Mr. Jones was the one substitute teacher that you never got over on. He was a retired guy who was very active in the neighborhood. He made a few extra dollars subbing, but you always knew that he wasn't there just babysitting us for the paycheck. When Mr. Jones was there he TAUGHT the class and would jack you up if you got out of pocket with him.

     Mr. Johnson was probably in his late 20's/early 30's at the time, tall with an athletic build. He was always dressed well, but with a younger, hipper style than Mr. Ennis yet not trendy. As smooth and suave as they come, it seemed as if all the girls had a bit of a crush on him and all the fellas wanted to BE him. Although I never had his class he would always speak to me in the hallways between classes or occasionally strike up conversation at lunch. He always had an encouraging word and sincerely listened to you in conversation. With Mr. Johnson, you always felt as if he was genuinely interested in whatever was going on with you.

     The other black male teacher I actually had was Mr. Cumbo. Short, rotund and bald, he was physically the polar opposite of Mr. Ennis. He had a brand on his right calf which proudly indicated his membership to the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. He had huge, tattooed biceps and a belly I suspect made round by a weekend routine of fermented hops. His bushy, cascading mustache and clean shaven dome gave him the look of a well lotioned bronze walrus.  His curt, surly and gruff demeanor was a ruse that didn't really cloak his grandfatherly appeal. He seemed the kind of guy you wanted to have your back when S popped off.

     As you can see, all of these men are etched in my brain. The subconscious impact they had still resonates with me decades later. Even Joe Ennis on a purely organic level, by virtue of his personal presentation and unshakable demeanor inspired me to emulate him. He and the others were uniquely different interpretations of the black male diaspora and a compliment to my ultimate role model, my father. The sad reality is that for far too many students, the black male teacher may very well be the only mentor, role model, source of manly wisdom and worthwhile father figure they ever encounter.