But I have been beat to the punch by two very thoughtful posts over at BlogHer: Nordette Adams's post "The Season of Our Discontent or Life with the "N" Word" and Laina Dawes's post "The Latest Dust-up on The View and Hipster Racism at it's Worst."
I wrote a long comment in response to Nordette's post, and I wanted to share it here because I know my readers will have plenty to say--either to set me straight or provide more nuance to what was a rather hastily written comment. Here it is:
Thank you so much for this excellent post. I think a lot of well-meaning white Americans' struggle with trying to find the "right" words--I'm thinking here of your example of someone who was afraid to use the word "black"--is that the language of race is slippery. Appropriate terms come and go--Negro, Afro-American, African-American--or linger a bit and then fade.
But there's one term that hangs around, despite its never having been appropriate for white people to use: N.
I appreciate your comparison of N to "redneck," but I'm having a hard time seeing the similarity in terms of intent. N is a far, far stronger word, one with a much more sinister history. "Redneck" refers, yes, pretty much solely to white people, but it also implies a class standing that--as tough as it might be--a "redneck" could aspire to overcome through education or increased income.
The same is not true of N. One cannot hope (and should not have to hope) to change one's race or ethnicity.
I would have no problem with you using the term "redneck" among an all-black or mixed-race group of friends on a Saturday night. I would have a huge problem if a white person used the N-word in front of me, regardless of who else was in the room. "Redneck" brushes aside people of a certain race and class as being hopelessly out of touch with the mainstream, which is sad. N does far worse--it dehumanizes people.
As you yourself point out, "redneck" has become a subculture within comedy. White comics--who might never have been called "redneck" themselves but who are willing to play rednecks on TV--are "reclaiming" the term as one of affection for wayward cousins. But by playing rednecks on TV, these comics also are marking themselves as not redneck. They know what a redneck is, and while they pretend to embrace their, er, neckedness, they actually are setting themselves apart from "real" rednecks by drawing borders around what makes someone a redneck, by defining what that person looks like and how he acts. And rule #1: A real redneck is not savvy enough to land a contract for a comedy series on national television.
There is one word that I don't think anyone has raised thus far in this conversation (at least in this post and its comments): queer. Queer was a term of denigration, but it was reclaimed by queer people as a mark of pride.
In similar ways, as I believe Whoopi Goldberg pointed out (but it may have been Sherri Shepherd--I can't remember who brought it up because it's been several days since I watched the video), N has been reclaimed by African Americans--but in a very different way. It's not a public reclaiming, except maybe in some rap music and comedy like Richard Pryor's. It will never--thank God--become a politically correct term like "queer" has become. It's such a loaded term that we're not even spelling it out in this space.
I can't tie this comment up neatly, but I just wanted to reflect a bit on redneck vs. queer vs. N, and how these words, all of which denigrate to different degrees, have taken very different paths to acceptance in different communities.
Thanks again for a great post, Nordette.
I encourage you to continue the conversation over at Nordette's post, where there is already a good discussion going on.