The View, History, and the Taboo Word

By Marques Camp,
Was Elizabeth Hasselbeck's "n-word" anger justified?

So Elizabeth Hasselbeck ends up in tears on The View, and Rosie's not involved. Good thing they got her out of there.

This time, the passionate debate focused on Rosie's replacement, Whoopi Goldberg, and Hasselbeck, with a few stray words from cohosts Sherri Shepherd and Barbara Walters. Plus Joy Behar glancing around worriedly, knowing that there was no appropriate joke to throw into the conversation.

The debate on last Thursday's show surrounded self-proclaimed black leader Jesse Jackson's private use of the n-word, a word he and the Rev. Al Sharpton went to great lengths to boycott and ban within the black entertainment industry and the black community in general, following Michael Richards's vitrolic rant at a Los Angeles comedy club.

Here's what the conversation boiled down to: Hasselbeck, a white mother, flat-out condemned the use of the word, privately or publicly, by anybody of any race. Shepherd, who is black, came back with indignation. "Oh, don't tell me I can't use that word." And, raising the issue of a double standard that many people often raise, Hasselbeck asked Shepherd why Hasselbeck, as a white person, couldn't use that word but it was okay for a black person to. Which led to the explanations from Shepherd and Goldberg that the n-word means different things to black people than it does to white people. Goldberg then tried to explain to Hasselbeck that blacks and whites live in different worlds, thus the so-to-speak double standard. Hasselbeck, ever the naive idealist who just wants us all to get along and hold hands, passionately decried that we could never live in the same world if such a double standard existed. She wondered why black people would ever use the n-word when it, "perpetuates stereotypes and hate."

The interesting thing is, as most commenters of the YouTube clip fail to realize, is that, essentially, Hasselbeck, Goldberg and Shepherd all make valid points, and in a sense, they were all right on the matter. Given the fact that they all made relatively cogent claims on the matter, however, only reinforces Goldberg's point that black people and white people live in different worlds, especially semantically.

N***** does indeed mean different things to black people than it does to white people and that is a divide created by history that no cultural linguistic change could bridge. The word has a nasty, vitrolic history behind it, which, understandably, had Hasselbeck in a tizzy. A word so bad that, in addition to egregiously offending black people, offends people of other races as well. And Hasselbeck is certainly on the right track on the account that nobody, including black people, should really be using the word if they want to come to terms with and overcome the history that's behind it. She is right to be mad, just as Goldberg and Shepherd are right to give Hasselbeck a reality check.

So, back to the million-dollar question of the double standard: Why is it okay for black people to say n*****, but nobody else? It would seem to imply an ownership of a word to the degree of which we rarely see.

Which is exactly the point that Goldberg is trying to make. Blacks, having been for so long victimized by screams and chants of n*****, felt compelled to take ownership of the word, to take a proactive rather than reactive stance with regard to sculpting its meaning. Thus, in the black community, n***** is no longer seen as a weak, powerless, subordinate human being with no rights, but rather, strangely enough, a sense of shared cultural heritage. It's an acknowledgement that a fellow person of similar skin color has shared in the historical oppression of black Americans, through slavery, segregation, racism and the like, and that, through this shared connection, two black people share a unique kinship. At least, for those people who have researched and understood the history of blacks in America and the use of the n-word, and who are intelligent and savvy enough to be able to linguistically turn a pejorative word upside down. Thus, when I see comics like Richard Pryor, Dave Chappelle, or Chris Rock use n***** in their acts, I trust that they know what they are doing. When I hear rappers like Nas or Mos Def or Common use the word, I trust they know what they are doing. And, though I may be incorrect and in fact guilty of sterotyping when I say this, I can't say the same thing when I hear 50 Cent or Lil' Wayne. Or Sherri Shepherd.

The real problem, which I think Hasselbeck is trying to allude to, is the mindless use of the word by generations that haven't come to understand this history. Those who say, without remorse, "Yeah, I shot that n*****," or "He is one dumb ass n*****"; those who don't have an appreciation for their rich cultural heritage but rather a fascination for violence, false gangsterism, and "keeping it real." It can't really be said that they mean to personally offend somebody by specifically choosing the word, "n*****," but rather they say it because they have been brainwashed by generations of racists that "n*****s" are all black people really are.

That is the real problem here. Some younger folks have even forgotten that n***** refers specifically to blacks; for example, borrowing a line from Indian comic Russell Peters, "I saw you with some Chinese n***** last night!" Now, I do not know the exact context in which Rev. Jesse Jackson uttered that fateful word, but I trust his intelligence that he knew what he was doing by using it. Contrarily, if it was in a manner not bespeaking a man of his intelligence, then perhaps, subconsciously, he has fallen into the same trap as younger, less educated blacks have.

So, on the one hand, we have those black people who have educated themselves about the word's etymology and the history of black oppression in America, who have helped turn the tide on the word, as it were. And we have those black people (and people of other races too, of course) who mindlessly believe that it's okay to use the word because it "doesn't mean the same thing anymore" without really understanding precisely *why* it doesn't mean the same thing. And for those who ask whether an educated person of a different race might be able to keep the word in his lexicon, it doesn't work that way. Self-determination is the name of this language game, and it is up to the intelligent black pioneers where this game is going to end up.

 
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