March 23, 2008

Mah Favorite Niggahz . . .

Yeah, well. The Greenwald Gang is at it again, quoting Old Punk at InstaPunk, and drawing a straight line between a post of his that uses the word nigger and . . . Instapundit. Reynolds isn't amused. (Well, actually—he is.)

The word nigger has so many different meanings it's difficult to unpack them all. And, to be fair, Old Punk got into some weird areas of fashion—like white kids don't wear baggy clothes to look cool? Tell that to my young white cousins.

For the most part, Old Punk's post leaves me just as cold as the people on my side of the aisle who "don't have any problem with immigrants, as long as they're legal," but never want to hear Spanish spoken in any public place, and are offended by the sight of grubby little taco stands polluting the public streets. If you show them a piņata, they need smelling salts.

That said, there is a use of the word nigger that is meant to describe "a person without class, morals or values." Where do you think the term white trash came from? It comes from the Jim Crow-era South, and it means, "someone with underclass values, but white skin." At least, it was used that way in every early 20th-century novel I ever read that was set south of the Mason-Dixon line. It meant "low-class," but in a way that went far beyond a person's means, and generally accused them of being low-class on the inside.

Now we use the term "trailer trash," so that we can take race out of it, and don't have to use the parallel, unwieldy—and highly offensive—terms niggers and white trash. Because there's no longer any logical association between race and trashiness, since blacks are no longer locked into low-income lives and deprived of upward mobility.

Of course, the new nomenclature isn't necessarily fair to people who live in prefabricated housing, but English is an imperfect language, and most people I know who live in trailer parks have a sense of humor about the negative associations therewith. They tell me it's really a "stationary coach" lifestyle, or explain that they only operate the meth labs on the weekends, so it's okay.

Anyway, I don't think I'm really white—Mayflower ancestry notwithstanding—because (1) I know I have some Creek Indian in me; (2) I suspect I have some Nez Perce as well; (3) some of my family is from the state of Virginia; (4) I have very full lips; and (5) my brother [and one of his sons] has very very dark skin, and fuzzy hair. Because people look at the skin color more closely than they do our features, they never suspect we're even related unless we tell them.

But, whatever. I'm pretty pale, so I identify with the Anglo-Saxon strain; it's the most convenient one to claim, given the way I look. Another friend of mine, who's also an English major white-looking chick, was talking with me about the Stuff White People Like site, and I told her that I know the intent is harmless, just as it was with The History of White People in America.—but to associate anything that's intellectual, or ironic, or upwardly mobile with white skin seems to me to be playing off of old stereotypes and going in the wrong direction. I see that it's probably funny sometimes—and to some people—but I don't like the conflation of "middle-class," or "upper-middle-class," with white. She responded:

I object as well, and perhaps more, to the use of "black" to signify cool, young/hip/urban, anti-corporate bullshit.... Specifically, white kids [students] who call each other (and, on at least one memorable occasion, me!) "my niggah."

Of course, once we acknowledge that any educated black person is equally likely to enjoy Starbucks and Sarah Silverman, and that any black person who lives in La Caņada or Santa Monica or Bel Air is culturally "white," then we're getting somewhere—provided that the term stops being an insult in the black community, and darker-skinned folks start allowing each other to wear cowboy boots and listen to Pink Floyd and do their homework without accusing each other of "acting white." At that point, maybe literary white chicks like my friend the composition teacher and I should be calling each other "mah niggah." Anything that blurs the lines and shows that culture and race are two different things (the first being relevant to who we are, and the second, irrelevant) should be applauded.

I'm pretty divorced from the celebrity culture, so I don't know about every case Old Punk mentioned, but I'm completely willing to specify that Jeremiah Wright, O.J. Simpson, and Louis Farrakhan are niggers. So were Jeffrey Dahmer and Joseph Stalin. Kim Jon Il is a nigger. Catherine Shelton appears to be a total nigger. Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka are niggers. Mary I of England? She was mondo-niggo.

But my friend and I? Just a couple of overread, middle-aged niggahz.

At this point, linguistically speaking, it's all in the spelling. In 20 years, though, one of my nephews is going to look at this post of mine and go, "Aunt Joy, what the fuck was it with people like you in the double-Os? Why were you on about race like that? Too much time on your hands? Geez."

Which is why instead of a "conversation," I'd like to see us eventually have a "national shut-up" about race. Not because I want us to censor ourselves, but because I hope we run out of things to say.

Just try not to be hating people. Not as individuals, and not as members of any group. Okay?

UPDATE: I'd forgotten about this; it may be the best Glenn Greenwald post of all time. I mean, the best one about him. I don't think it was by him, though of course one never can tell. Sometimes I wonder if the entire blogosphere other than me is simply an elaborate Greenwald prank. I mean, I know I exist, because I annoy my husband. But how about the others? How can I be sure they aren't all just extensions of Gleen(s)?

h/t: Clarice, in this thread at Just One Minute.

UPDATE 2: Ralph Robert Moore:

In addition to the N word, we also have the F word. In case you don't know, the F word is 'fuck'. If we're going to persist in the assignment of letters to disturbing words, then I do have a concern as a practical matter, since we only have 26 letters in the alphabet, and two of them are now taken. That means we only have 24 letters left to act as a code for the words we find objectionable in our modern society. As a service towards reserving the remaining alphabetical letters to the most deserving of bad words, I suggest the following:

The A word Asshole
The B word Bastard
The C word Cancer
The D word Dope
The E word Easy
The F word Fuck
The G word Gimp
The H word Hooker
The I word Idiot
The J word Jackass
The K word Kike
The L word Lez
The M word Moron
The N word Nigger
The O word Open sore
The P word Pisser-away-of-opportunities
The Q word Queer
The R word Retard
The S word Shithead
The T word Tits and Ass
The U word Urine-receiving prostrate individual
The V word Vain
The W word Weird
The X word Xenophobe
The Y word Young
The Z word Zoo-hanging-out-in practitioner of bestiality

Some of them need work.

I'm open to suggestions.

UPDATE 3: Still more here. I'm searching around, trying desperately to remember/find out which 20th-Century African-American female writer it was who also advocated repeating the word aloud, over and over—to young black kids, especially—simply so it wouldn't carry the same sting. But not by white people, presumably—jeez! It was in an interview I read in the early 1980s, and I cannot find it right now, for love or money or my search-engine Kung Fu.

In case people do not understand, I have no desire to make it respectable for white people to call black people niggers, but I do think it should be okay within the same race (whatever we're defining as "race" in 2008—same-ish, let's say). Black-on-black, white-on-white, Asian-on-Asian. And if a black person called me a nigger, I'm afraid I'd just hear niggah, and be flattered. Context is everything: I'd never say that word to a black person, because . . . why? That just sounds low and stupid.

Of course, if this were a black man calling me nigger in the "woman is the nigger of the world" sense, I'd assume he just wanted me to do the dishes or cook or whatever, and my abilities to do these things are remarkably . . . inconsistent. Fickle, even. The older I get, the more I forget how to do stuff like that. Isn't that weird? It's like I get amnesia, or something. By the time she died, my grandmother had "lost" all of her domestic skills. She couldn't cook. She couldn't clean. She couldn't drive (that one would kill me). But she seemed to have plenty of time for the things she wanted to do.

UPDATE 4: Apparently, whatever we are, Juliette just wants us to get the hell off of her lawn. I sympathize: I wouldn't want me on my lawn either . . .

I wonder if the B-sphere is fated to have the same fights over and over again over race and gender, and gender and race, and people named Glenda, and race car drivers, and Glendale and pace, and grenades and pax and sex and sociability and space and engendering Irish lace.

UPDATE 5: Yeah. Group hug time.

UPDATE 6: I'm starting to look at Old Punk with new respect. His latest post on the subject is remarkably sensitive and insightful, and he does, in fact, answer my charges about having brought The Fashions of the Young into this discussion: the fact is, a lot of young black people live life closer to the margins than my young cousins do, and when they act out in certain ways they genuinely can jeopardize their chances of employment in a small town. I hadn't thought of it in those terms, of course, since I've lived in cities most of my life.

And, goddamn; the man can write. As W.H. Auden once pointed out, that makes up for any number of sins. Furthermore, Old Guy can spell, which makes me swoon in and of itself.

Posted by Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 10:49 AM | TrackBack

The n-word has meant black from the beginning, even before it took on its derogatory connotations. The Latin word "niger," the Spanish word "negro" (not to mention its English counterpart) and the country of Niger are not so called because they are populate dby white trash.

Posted by: Xrlq at March 23, 2008 12:44 PM

Excellent post, LMA! Greenwald has truly gone over the edge of the world on this one.

It is interesting to note that those on the left have absolutely no problem using insults like "rednecks" for those of us in the South. Sure, we call ourselves that, too, but, we do it in fun, they do it to be denigrating.

Posted by: William Teach at March 23, 2008 12:48 PM

Having grown up in the South , I can honestly say that my parents only taught me two labels:

Respectable and Not Respectable

If you did something worthy of respect, you received it. If you did something of poor character, you were not respected. Undignified terms, epithets and slurs were not deemed as respectable, no matter the context.

Your last statement sums it up for me.

Posted by: Conservative Belle at March 23, 2008 01:08 PM

WELL! This black man is laugh his azz off at your post. Especially this line:

But my friend and I? Just a couple of overread, middle-aged niggahz.

PRICELESS. I see so many white kids calling each other "niggas" or "niggaz". It doesn't even shock me anymore. On the real, it actually makes me feel good that we are devaluing the word "nigger". Because the sooner we can dump the remnants of American slavery, the better we will all be.

Posted by: T-Steel at March 23, 2008 03:54 PM

Excluding the Jewish stuff, tell me anything Sarah Silverman says that Kimmel's old time Man Show Boy didn't say / couldn't have said.
Didn't Man Show Boy disappear just as Sarah went ascendant?
Again, excluding the Jewish stuff, listen to Silverman with eyes closed and picture a horny, blunt spoken eleven-year-old boy. Once you do that you can't stop.

Posted by: Merc at March 23, 2008 04:58 PM

Yeah, well. Lots of people contributed to the Man Show, other than Kimmel. Like, well: Adam Carolla, for one. And at least a dozen other comics/improv people I could name. Even my husband threw in a joke or two for those guys; we didn't watch TMS long enough to know whether they were actually used.

I dunno: the difference for me, between Silverman and The Man Show is that I didn't love The Man Show the way I loved Jesus Is Magic.

I'm also not sure that I can imagine Silverman without "the Jewish stuff." Isn't that like trying to imagine Woody Allen without "the Jewish stuff"?

Furthermore, I'm having trouble imagining an 11-year-old boy coming up with this line: "so, I was licking jelly off my boyfriend's penis the other day, and the thought struck me--I'm turning into my mother!"

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 05:50 PM

T-Steel--that's why I try to use the word instead of doing that "n-word" thing. I mean, I understand that a lot of white people do that because they don't want to be accused of racism, even if they're talking about the word as a word. That's totally legitimate, but if I didn't use the word every now and then I'd feel like I was giving it power over me.

And it's just a short distance between giving it power over me, and giving it power over black people that it should not have.

Of course, I'm a female who isn't afraid of--or impressed by--the word "cunt." So what do I know?

What I do not advocate is using it around little kids of either color, because little kids don't know context. I'd rather swear around a child than use that word without explaining why it's a word that only grownups can use.

"No, no," I told my young nephew once. "'Fag' is not a swear word. It's what they call a slur. That's much worse."

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 06:04 PM

Ditto what Belle said (as usual!).

Greenwald is a farking stupid c***. REALLY, I'm trying to keep it clean. Instapundit = Old Punk at Instapunk? WTFever!

Here's a good way of identifying whether or not a post is racist: If neo-nazis show up leaving links to their filth in the comments, you've probably said something they like. I HATED that post at Instapunk, although there were a few individual sentences therein with which I agreed. (Of course, I could say that about damn near any blog post.) He ruined what might have been a good start to a good conversation, though.

And see, that's what people think is a problem--that we "can't be honest." Well, so what? Shouldn't it be okay to make bigotry taboo?

It isn't even JUST about his use of "niggers," although I cringed when I saw it; it's about the "I'm sick of black people as a group" shit. Yeah, we can have "honest discussion" about race, if that's what people want, but there's no need for everyone's opinion to be respected.

My "honest opinion?" I don't give a rat's ass what people who are "sick of black people as a group" OR what people who spew crap like Jeremiah White have to say. As far as I'm concerned, their opinions are worthless.

/Beth, unemployed single mom getting a government (VA) check, eating popcorn for dinner
//who's the nigga now, yo?

Posted by: Beth at March 23, 2008 06:27 PM

You know who I'm sick of?--those people whose second toes are longer than their big toes. Whassup with that?--I don't care if the Romans thought it was "Patrician." It looks funny. One's big toe should also be the longest toe on one's foot.

Oh, wait [looks at feet]. Never mind.

Well, I'm tired of short chicks with honey-colored hair who talk too damned much!

There. I said it.

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 06:41 PM

There. I said it.

LOL! Me too! ;-P

Posted by: Beth at March 23, 2008 06:46 PM

BTW, you don't look like trailer trash in the hat. >>>>^^^^
It's clean and in good condition. Roll it around underneath the trailer a bit, and you might have something. ;)

Posted by: Beth at March 23, 2008 06:49 PM

I am a witness to this. Okay, say you went to the zoo and they had 4 rhinosarous 2 were white and 2 were black. you notice that the 2 black were at one end and the 2 white were at the other end. would you call either of them racists? and which two would you call the racists? I would be willing to bet you would have to say the black rhinos are the racists. Right? Ok I was just having a little fun. Of course the white rhinos are racist.

Posted by: hogtrashhd at March 23, 2008 08:04 PM

Yeah, whatev.

If it'll help, I'll specify that 95-99% of prison inmates either are racist, or have to do a good job of acting as such in order to survive.

Though I know someone who had been incarcerated who informed me that where he was, the Christian table was integrated. However: they still did have to fight and stand up for their own--just to earn the right to be left alone by the rest of the population.

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 08:42 PM

As much as I like being quoted (!), and as much as I think you're incredibly bright and engaged and committed to exploring questions of race with the best of intentions, I'm not sure you (or we, or white folks in general) can deracinate the word "nigger" and make it apply as much to a white person as to a black person, even stipulating that it's a bad white person like Jeffrey Dahmer and that good people of any race are not included in the term. Since the term has historically (and in my Richmond grandparents' home) been applied to black people regardless of their behavior, to try to add elements like character and behavior to the definition while subtracting color seems like too large a project.

Then again, when Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of being told by a white mentor not to "be a nigger," her take on the incident seems positive: she is recounting an anecdote during which she received useful advice that helped guide her into becoming an incredibly bright, self-possessed, and successful black woman.

I can't tell Hurston how to use the word, or how to feel about hearing it used. All I know is, I can't use it, can't reclaim it to mean young or hip, can't ask people to understand that I mean bad people of any race.

I was once having a conversation about Huck Finn and the use of the word nigger in the book. I used the word out loud... just as a black woman walked by. She couldn't know my intent or the context, couldn't know I'm not a racist, just an academic with bad timing and bad vision. I've never used it since.

So, as much as I love the sentiment behind calling us "overread middle-aged (?) niggahz," I think I druther we go by some other title instead. ....

Posted by: Rin at March 23, 2008 09:10 PM

How about "nappy-headed homegirl"?

I think the fact that you've heard the word used in a truly prejudicial way (and not by people who were exploiting its shock value, BTW) gives the word a truly different gloss for you, so I respect your decision there.

But I live for the day when a woman who walks by an academic and overhears that word reacts the way she might to overhearing the word fuck, and thinks nothing or all, or merely a semi-conscious sort of "hm; must be a joke or a literary allusion I didn't catch".

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 09:46 PM

This is some of the most incoherent shit I've ever read.

A bunch of white people complaining that they can't say the 'n-word' in polite conversation. Is that the gist of it?

Posted by: Levi at March 23, 2008 10:08 PM

Nope. But thank you for trying!

Which "n-word" was that, by the way? Nepotism? Necrophilia? Neapolitan? Needy? Nitwit? Network? NotNow?

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 23, 2008 10:37 PM

I wonder if the B-sphere is fated to have the same fights over and over again over race and gender, and gender and race, and people named Glenda, and race car drivers, and Glendale and pace, and grenades and pax and sex and sociability and space and engendering Irish lace.


I've seen it in Usenet groups. I've also seen it in Real Life, in a science meeting. It was an ocean interface observing program, so there where oceanographers as well as meteorologists. For the better part of two days they argued over the same policy positions again and again. It became abundantly obvious each position had its adherents, and no one was going to back down and give in. And to a large extent, they where busy talking past each other.

Posted by: I R A Darth Aggie at March 24, 2008 05:42 AM

Of course I agree, it would be great if the word lost its hurtful power and, when overheard, meant only that Huck Finn was under discussion.

I don't think we can get there by willing the word to mean something different, though, or by declaring redefinition by fiat.

Rather, I think we need to change the realities of race, as lived in America, so that such words can eventually fade away into abstractions.

Oh, and if you want to call me a Necrophiliac or a Nitwit, feel free! I'll be your nappy necrophiliac, or your natty nitwit, or your gnarly gnu, any day of the week.

Posted by: Rin at March 24, 2008 06:10 AM

Heh. Actually, the "get off my lawn" comment was to characterize Instapunk's post, which was supposed to come off as provocative but struck me as mere crotchety old man ravings.

It also made me miss my flawed and beloved Acidman, as you can tell.

Posted by: baldilocks at March 24, 2008 06:33 AM

Yeah, I figured. :)

But I couldn't read Acidman. I just couldn't get past the way he wrote about women and black people. I know some people loved him--but I could never hang around long enough to see the sweet side everyone swore existed.

I simply couldn't tolerate . . . well. His use of the n-word.

From what I hear, it was my loss.

Posted by: Attila Girl at March 24, 2008 06:43 AM

That's where forgiveness comes in. Plus I had been reading his stuff every day since early 2003. I could see where a person who only read intermittently would just say "forget this knuclehead."

I guess Obama would say the same about Uncle Jeremiah, however, Rob wasn't my pastor.

Posted by: baldilocks at March 24, 2008 08:50 AM

Yikes. Need more coffee.

Posted by: baldilocks at March 24, 2008 08:51 AM

There's this to toss into the mix.

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