"Death and life are in the power of the tongue."Proverbs 18:21.
That's one of my favorite Bible verses. It came to mind recently when the controversy over the N-word re-emerged in public discourse with the recent apology by comedian and HBO late night host Bill Maher. I have to say I am a fan of Maher. But my fandom was challenged when, in an awful and awkwardly privileged attempt at a joke, Maher used the N-word in response to a comment by a political guest who had invited Maher to work with him "in the fields." Maher's response went over badly, and he got dragged on social media and in the court of public opinion. Now just like that, we're back here again debating whether it's ever OK for white people to use the N-word.
This is a complicated lesson I have to teach my sons who are growing up with some seriously mixed messages. Their first exposure to the N-word was from their African-American culture in art, music, barbecues, barbershops and so on. If the N-word comes from the mouth of people who look like me, we keep it moving. BUT my children are bi-racial, so if it ever comes out of the mouth of someone from their father's side of the family they are Italian or anyone who looks like him, that's a problem. They have to learn the difference in who has the "privilege" to use this word based on things like context, subtext, history, culture and intent.
All cultures adhere to these unwritten rules of engagement. For instance, my husband's family has no problem dropping negative cultural slang references about Italians every now and again. It's also understood, however, that the rule, "I can say it, but you can't," definitely applies.
But African-Americans have to take some culpability when we witness how some people are absolutely shocked at the severe consequences that follow when non-Blacks utter the N-word. Because in the quest by some Black people to "take back the N-word," a pejorative steeped in the ugliest of hatred, degradation and violence, we've made it part of our lexicon.
What we forgot along the way is our culture, Black culture is popular culture, so everyone begins to think it's OK for common usage. When it's on the radio, when it flows effortlessly in conversation, when it's in art, people get lulled into thinking it's acceptable.
But it's not OK for non-Blacks because the historical context and subtext are different. The N-word, like other ethnic slurs, originated as a verbal weapon to be used against a particular race or ethnic group. If you have never been the victim of one of these uniquely designed weapons, you cannot take that weapon and reimagine it as a cool form of expression.
Three new virtual reality adventures each
There's a debate within the Black community about whether African-Americans should stop saying it all together. Oprah Winfrey has championed this concept. She tells a story about when she looked at a historical Black-and-white photograph of a lynching. It was an entire Black family, mother, father children, with a crowd of white people gathered around watching, and cheering. Winfrey says that she can only imagine that the last word that Black family heard was the N-word, and for them, that word would never mean anything but what it was originally intended, something to incite violence, degradation, evil, death. Why do we want to own that?
But that's another debate. This one is pretty clear. If you are outraged by the outrage against white folks who slip up and use the N-word, remember these two rules: 1. ) If you are not Black and you use the N-word, there will be varying measures of consequence that befall you. Play at your own risk. 2. ) If you are Black, you should never have to explain rule number one.
Regina Carswell Russo is a recovering television journalist, writer, RRight Now Communications CEO and part of the board of contributors at the Cincinnati Enquirer.
The column first appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer on June 16.