Sunday, July 27, 2008

First thoughts: the n-word, "redneck," and "queer"

I've been brewing in my mind a post or two on the N-word discussion on The View. In case you haven't seen the clip, here it is:



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.

6 comments:

Rebecca Clayton said...

Spoken like someone who has never been identified by others as a redneck--although the real name is "white trash," and it's an estate you can never buy or educate away. If you do successfully change your accent, your appearance, and your behavior to fit in with the quality folks (as I had to in graduate school and in government research institutes) you must always pretend to be someone you're not. Class discrimination is real, and these days, it's a myth that you can move up in the American class system.

This isn't to say that racism is no longer an issue, or that sexism is dead either; but I think the reason you aren't offended by "redneck" is because no one has maliciously identified you as "white trash," "okie," or "dirty hillbilly." When your major professor and your bosses routinely use these on you, it changes your outlook.

trillwing said...

Rebecca,

Thanks so much for your response. This is exactly what I needed to hear.

I wasn't denying that class discrimination is real--but there's a perception in the U.S. that you can overcome it, even if the culture/class in which you were raised leaves its mark on you.

While I have never been called "redneck" or "white trash" or "hillbilly," I do know the sting of classism, even within the middle class. Growing up I was the "poor" kid at my upscale elementary school--and my clothes, my parents' politics, and much else branded me as different. Those wealthier kids' taunts are things I carry with me to this day. Still, I'm not about to play oppression Olympics here--I know I had it easy compared to a lot of folks. (E.g. my dad, who grew up on a farm without plumbing and then had to learn to negotiate urban life as a teenager.)

I'm so sorry your major professor and bosses feel it's OK to use this term in reference to you. That's an abuse of power by people who are supposed to be looking out for your interests.

Anastasia said...

with class and with race, getting ahead amounts to passing as a member of the dominant group. if you have dark skin, you can't pass on sight but you can certainly pass in terms of behavior, interests, demeanor. And that is very much like what people from lower social status face in upward mobility. There isn't a day I don't forget that, while economically solidly upper middle class, I am still plain white trash underneath that.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dP2U0jmZjec

Card Diva said...

I think it is time we all get over it. The word only holds power if we continue to allow it too. The power we give the word is the only mistake that I see.
We can only say we are "owed" for so long...and then it is time to move on. No I am not black, but I am Jewish and my Grandmother was in the concentration camp and still is stamped...my great grandfather never made it out, nor did his brother. My grandmother worked very hard in making sure we all knew where we came from, and what she, her parents, and friends went through...and to never hold power to words and to never give anyone the right to hold such power to words. If we are going to use a term in dearly, then so can others. To disparage hate is to take power away from it. Actions are what we need to be concerned with.

My grandmother's neighbor, a surgeon, even offered to have her numbers taken off her arm. She said "no". She never hid them, and wore them proud...meaning no-one will ever do this again. She always said "history has already been wrote, the past is the past and we can't live in the present and plan for the future if we hold onto the past in a negative manner. Embrace it, learn from it, and move on...never blame the past for your decisions today.

Card Diva said...

I think it is time we all get over it. The word only holds power if we continue to allow it too. The power we give the word is the only mistake that I see.
We can only say we are "owed" for so long...and then it is time to move on. No I am not black, but I am Jewish and my Grandmother was in the concentration camp and still is stamped...my great grandfather never made it out, nor did his brother. My grandmother worked very hard in making sure we all knew where we came from, and what she, her parents, and friends went through...and to never hold power to words and to never give anyone the right to hold such power to words. If we are going to use a term in dearly, then so can others. To disparage hate is to take power away from it. Actions are what we need to be concerned with.

My grandmother's neighbor, a surgeon, even offered to have her numbers taken off her arm. She said "no". She never hid them, and wore them proud...meaning no-one will ever do this again. She always said "history has already been wrote, the past is the past and we can't live in the present and plan for the future if we hold onto the past in a negative manner. Embrace it, learn from it, and move on...never blame the past for your decisions today.