Obama said it, and why that’s OK

We need to feel the sting of what this word means.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Madi­son T. Shock­ley II Madi­son T. Shock­ley II is pas­tor of Pil­grim UCC in Carlsbad and a mem­ber of the board of di­rec­tors of the ACLU of San Diego and Im­pe­rial coun­ties.

Thirty-five years ago, the fore­most co­me­dian of his day, Richard Pryor, re­turned from his first visit to Kenya and de­clared that he would never again call another black per­son “nig­ger” or use the word in his public per­for­mances. He sparked a move­ment that gained near uni­ver­sal af­fir­ma­tion if not par­tic­i­pa­tion. In time, it seemed that the eu­phemism “N-word” had van­quished its dark shadow.

Then Pres­i­dent Obama spoke the word “nig­ger” out loud in a pod­cast in­ter­view aired last week. His do­ing so has re­newed the ques­tion that many thought had been set­tled: Is it ever ap­pro­pri­ate to use this word, so laden with ha­tred and the vi­cious history of racism?

Yet when the pres­i­dent ut­tered the word, one would have thought he was obliv­i­ous to the con­tro­versy. His use is par­tic­u­larly no­table, not be­cause he is the first pres­i­dent to say “nig­ger” (Oval Of­fice tapes of Pres­i­dents Nixon and Lyn­don John­son re­veal free and reg­u­lar use of the word) but be­cause it shocked a na­tion that as­sumed Obama had the most to lose from its con­tin­ued use. For those who have ar­gued that the word should never be used pub­licly, Obama’s broad­cast of the word is a ma­jor set­back.

Lost in the ker­fuf­fle is the cen­tral point he was mak­ing: that even if the move­ment to ban­ish the word were suc­cess­ful, it would not be ev­i­dence that racism had been di­min­ished, let alone elim­i­nated. “And it’s not just a mat­ter of it not be­ing po­lite to say ‘nig­ger’ in public,” he said. “That’s not the mea­sure of whether racism still ex­ists or not. It’s not just a mat­ter of overt dis- crim­i­na­tion.”

I agree with the pres­i­dent us­ing the word, but I dis­agree that its re­moval from com­mon con­ver­sa­tion is as mean­ing­less as he sug­gests. With the stakes now raised, white folks from all walks of life are more care­ful not to be heard, over­heard, recorded or re­ported to have used the word.

It is im­por­tant that we have hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about race, and pro­hibit­ing the use of this word warps our in­ter­ra­cial in­ter­ac­tions and thwarts the progress we gen­uinely seek to make. It does this by blunt­ing the re­al­ity of the state of af­fairs. We need to feel the sting of what this word means when it is used to de­mean and de­grade a per­son or a peo­ple. Only “nig­ger” con­veys the grav­ity of the ha­tred be­hind that word.

I ar­rived at this point of view in a con­ver­sa­tion with a white woman who is a mem­ber of the church that I pas­tor (the church is pre­dom­i­nantly white). Obama had re­cently been elected to his first term as pres­i­dent, and as she was col­lect­ing her mail from the mail­boxes that serve the homes on her block, she greeted a neigh­bor. When he saw Obama’s im­age on a mailer she was hold­ing, he pointed at it and said to her, “That damned nig­ger.”

I am black, and she shared this with me be­cause she wanted me to un­der­stand the com­mu­nity in which she lived and to which I had just moved. The pain in her voice told me she needed to tell me his ex­act words, to taste its poi­son. I needed to hear it to know more pre­cisely just how much work I had to do in my new parish. I’ll never for­get that con- ver­sa­tion, and nei­ther will she.

It is a griev­ous dis­ser­vice when media or­ga­ni­za­tions fail to use the word in their re­port­ing. In March, the Sigma Al­pha Ep­silon fra­ter­nity at the Univer­sity of Ok­la­homa was ex­pelled af­ter a video was broad­cast of mem­bers singing a chant that in­cluded the word. Tele­vi­sion and ra­dio re­ports blurred tran­scripts and bleeped au­dio that con­tained the word. I wanted to hear the raw footage and found it on the In­ter­net.

Even though I knew what to ex­pect, the vis­ceral im­pact of hear­ing these col­lege stu­dents singing “There will never be a nig­ger SAE, there will never be a nig­ger SAE. You can hang ’em from a tree, but they’ll never sign with me, there will never be a nig­ger SAE” (sung to the tune of the chil­dren’s song, “If You’re Happy and You Know It”) was stag­ger­ing.

When I heard what they ac­tu­ally sang, I felt the news re­port had robbed me of the truth and damp­ened the re­ac­tion that should be, and needs to be, pro­voked in ev­ery Amer­i­can who wants to elim­i­nate the scourge of racism.

The sil­li­est part of this de­bate re­gards who can say the word. Ev­ery­one should be free to say it. Media out­lets should be re­quired to re­port the truth of what is said or writ­ten by the sub­jects of their cov­er­age. Writ­ers and blog­gers should use it when ap­pro­pri­ate to their work. If the media do their job and re­port the full force of this word and the harm it does, then those who use it as a slur do so with full knowl­edge that there are con­se­quences.

Wes Bau­smith Los An­ge­les Times

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