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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The "N" Word

I was going to do a post on this word in light of a very disturbing lecture in Psychology 15: Social Psychology that I attended yesterday where the professor (excuse me, lecturer, hahaha), Ronald Butzlaff, went on for an hour and a half about stereotypes and the intrinsic racism that was in U.S. culture, thus saying that it was OK and expected to be racist. Sure it is. Surprisingly, I didn't really begin to get too pissed off until he took it upon himself to put up a slide displaying racial stereotypes of Americans (people from the U.S. in this case, not from throughout the Americas), Japanese people, Jews, and NEGROES. The stereotypes were from years past (thus Blacks/African-Americans still being referred to as "Negroes") and spanned decades but changed little over time, which was his point. Nevertheless, it disturbed me to have him display stereotypes of Blacks being "lazy", "ostentatious", "happy-go-lucky", etc. in a setting such as a large lecture. The breaking point for me came when Butzlaff projected a slide on the screen that had epithets used against Blacks all over it and proceeded to read them aloud to the +150 person auditorium; the very first word was "nigger". Hearing this word utterred by Black people raises its own problems in my mind but hearing it utterred by an admitted racist, part German lecturer at Harvard was difficult. I had to literally look away from him and calm myself down as a struggled to not throw my wack (and also "nigger"-using) textbook by three White, male authors at him. Anyway, here's an article on this word and its present-day usage by Darryl Jamses--an award-winning author and founder of the only Black-owned rap music publication (isn't that great), Rap Sheet. Enjoy and comment. Was anybody else in that lecture or hear about it?


At 12:39 PM, Anonymous disgruntled negro said...

Dude said what!!!
Next time I'm in William James I'm gonna visit Butzlaff's office-(WJH 1310 people) and give his ass something to really laff about. Why are social psychologists some of the socially dumbest people? Did dude really say it's okay to be racist? It's definitely expected, but did he realyl say it's ok? Nigga please

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

In the mortal words of my blockmate from Cuba: "DO IT!"

At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Elephant said...

Ummm . . . hello . . . maybe in the Marxist/Maoist/Communist haze you've embroiled yourself in you neglected to realize that all of this took place in a classroom, under the aegis of intellectual discourse. If you can't talk about racism in a psychology class, where can you talk about it?

At 3:06 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

Quick question Elephant, could you refrain from Cold War red-baiting when commenting here? I think you bring up good points and I'm glad you're a part of the community, but I'm frustrated that you feel the need to fall back on McCarthyism-lite to make your points. Unless Jersey's opinion is actually influenced by his supposed "Marxist/Maoist/Communist" beliefs, why don't you just make your point and let it speak for itself instead of falling back on ad homonym attacks? If you do feel that they are relevant, please explain that so that our conversation can be productive instead of angry. thanks!

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Calling the lecturer "part German" seems not only stereotypical but vastly hypocritical. Your comma between "racist" and "part German" is not an equals sign, and your suggestion that it is shows that perhaps you ought to attend some social psychology classes more often.

At 5:25 PM, Anonymous Elephant said...

Point taken. Jersey sometimes has very interesting posts, such as his recent ones about hiphop music and finals clubs. But sometimes he lets his ideology get the better of him, going off into a rant that is just so far beyond the pale of reality it's difficult to engage in any sort of reasonable discourse. I can understand why someone can be instinctively offended by words, but when he takes the time to write a lengthy blog post on the subject, it signals that this reaction was not solely out of anger. Only someone resolutely under the sway of an ideology like Marxism or Communism could so baldly make a statement that strikes against the very heart of academic freedom. It is for this reason that Conant said that Communists lacked the freedom of thought and speech to engage in academia productively.

At 3:54 AM, Anonymous Cait said...

Hey Elephant,
I think its great that you are taking part in this dialogue and took Golis' comment about making this a constructive/productive discussion space seriously. However, I'm troubled by the explaination that you offered regarding why you deemed it appropriate to invoke charged ideaologies. So, casting eloquence to the side. . . and admitting that this is a 3:40 am post, let me try to explain why:
Firstly, by blogging standards, and perhaps more pertinently, by self-satisfied, long winded (I'm making fun of myself and all of us in this) Harvard-student standards, I don't think Jersey's post was long at all. (You refer to the length of the post as a possible indicator of Jersey's state of mind while writing.) I do not feel the least bit surprised that Jersey decided to post this story on Cambridge Common, and don't feel the need to turn towards radical ideaolgical leanings to explain it. It seems like exactly the sort of thing that should get talked about, and too often doesn't--but, low and behold, here's a productive space to explore issues. And, its a Harvard issue in the most direct sense, making this dialogue all the more necessary. So, why assume the blogger is somehow restricted by a dogma or lacks "the freedom of thought and speech to engage in academia productively." Isn't this blogger trying to explore how to truly be productive in the academic sphere? How to discuss racism in sensitive and accurate lights? He's opening a dialogue about whether or not that went on in his class (albeit by expressing his strong opinion that it didn't!).
Secondly, I think its very possible that Jersey's most is expressive of more than anger. I agree. It could be frustration. He's lamenting what Jersey, I think, views as a lack of responsibility in the classroom. A lack of understanding. I find its all the more frustrating when the person violating what, to you, seems like common sense and decency has the authority in a classroom. It legitimizes potentially harmful material. That feels awful.
So, I guess I'm failing to see where Jersey is giving off any signs of being irrational or not thoughtful enough. How does his post show that he's under the sway of a particular idealogy. Isn't this post coming from the very fact that Jersey is willing to question what is conventionally accepted in Harvard classrooms? Let's not look over the fact that this insidious form of ideology can def. taint and limit people's thinking as well.
Lastly, you mention previous posts of Jersey's, but I wonder. I see no trace of materialism being discussed here. No reliance on dialectics. Where's the Marx? Where's the Mao? Is it just easy to fall back on this iconic individuals when you want to call something radical? And, at its root, is being radical a bad thing? Something we have to associate with being "a rant" or something "beyond the pale of reality"? How many thinkers who are today very mainstream were once thought of as radical? Common dude. . . broaden those horizons. If you want to identify specific elements of Jersey's texts that echo these thinkers, it might lead to a really interesting dialogue. I'm in. But, if you're way of legitimizing your earlier name-calling-game is simply: Either this blogger is too emotional ("angry") or he's too dogmatic (thinking restricted by an ideology). . . then you leave a lot wanting. . .

incapable of being concise, but interested in the conversation,

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

Thanks, Cait. You articulated a good amount of what I would have put together as my rebuttal to Elephant but if he thinks that's it?! Oh boy...

To Elephant: The "haze" we are all embroiled in is a thick and deadly one that allows people to fall under the thumb of theoretical organizations that exist solely on paper (corporations) though have all of the rights of living, breathing, reproducing, and bleeding HUMANS like you and I. These theoretical organizations are more powerful than many federal governments--that are purportedly representatives of the world's people--in terms of the control of capital and culture and have as their chief purpose the pursuit of another theoretical idea codified on paper (money, stocks, deeds, etc.). Let that part alone swirl around in your mind. These corporations are allowed to pursue their mission to the detriment of the overwhelming majority of the world's people and bring about huge sacrifices in human life and environmental productivity. Pick your corporation: General Motors, Wal-Mart, Shell Oil--each of these multinational corporations has an absolutely parasitic relationship with three important entities. These are the government, the people, and the environment. Government raises taxes or minimum wage too high? Corporations threaten offshoring. People try to organize to get fairer working conditions or wages? Union busters come in and dismember the movement. Environmental vegetation and animals in the way of you increasing returns to shareholders? Destroy it (and them). Capitalism's self-defeating attribute is that no profit is ever enough. Optimization is an ideal, not a tangible sum. Elephant, I say all of this to say this is the haze that is over the world. The world knows about a lot of this and just accepts it as the way it is: an incorrigible system whereby certain people form oligarchies and have certain resources that are systematically and globally deprived to the majority of the world's people so these billions of people remain diseased, hungry, and without things like health care, housing, and clothing that the elite take for granted by possessing it in gaudy excess. Call this Marxist if you want. I call it ("it" being a non-economically exploitative global humanist society) justice.

As far as me flipping out over my professor saying "nigger" in class, no justice can be done on the pages of this blog to reflect my feelings to you unless you yourself identify as a member of an oppressed group that suffers similar subjugation under a similar term. I should not have to explain that, probably uncontroversially, this is THE most offensive word in U.S. English due to its historical and still-persisting usage as a term expressive of inferiority and hate towards an entire group of +35 million people (not to mention those abroad who suffer from the word). I should not have to explain to you that Lecturer Butzlaff simply uttering this word in front of certain individuals will be an immediate antecedent for murderous action. I should not have to explain that the continued usage of this word by Blacks to seemingly positively, though actually derisively, address one another is not only sanctioned by White-owned corporate media and entertainment industries, but is PROMOTED. Case in point: The Boondocks. This past Sunday the show based on the popular and controversial comic strip aired for the first time ever and of all the profane language that was not allowed to be broadcast, the "N" word was not among them. The words was used over a dozen times in the show's initial airing (http://dwb.newsobserver.com/24hour/entertainment/story/2893079p-11554902c.html) and broadcast to millions of people around the world to absorb and reproduce without knowing the insidious word's context. Sadly, Comedy Central is not the only television station that allows this. I have heard other such stations (including VH1 and CNN) use the word in broadcasts and not edit it out as they would "fuck", "shit", or "God damn it". Obviously these corporate bodies deem it more acceptable than these other words, as does Lecturer Butzlaff. I doubt he would utter such words in front of President Summers, but he felt that the venue of Psych 15 was OK. Nope. Location doesn't matter. Whether it's said in the confines of the Faculty Club or the "consciousness" of a BSA Meeting--it's never OK to allow racist vocabulary, and thus its accompanying ideology and affect on the targeted and oppressed group--to persist. The fact that a self-identified member of arguably the most archetype (true or not) racist nation used it just worsens the situation.

You're right that my post was not solely out of anger. Had my reaction to Butzlaff been purely anger I would have caught a case.

Which "Conant" are you speaking of?

At 6:45 PM, Anonymous Elephant said...

It's difficult to engage you on either point, but I'll give it a try:

First, you seem to ignore the overwhelmingly positive effects that corporations have on people, by creating value, products, jobs and opportunity. People all over the world are better off with the value created by modern technology and the incredible productivity created by the combination of technology, innovation, and free markets. I'm not saying that the world is perfect by any means, and we need to work towards a better balance of regulation and freedom, sustainable development and technology transfer. But the philosophical orientation that corporations are somehow immoral (as opposed to merely amoral, or moral in the sense that recognizing that by organizing people in certain ways value can be created via the application of science where none existed before) is a very different one. It makes it hard to have a productive conversation when you want to return to the stone age, and everyone else wants to look forward to a real future.

Second, I personally agree with you that the N-word is extremely offensive in most contexts. When uttered as a racial slur with intent to deprecate and offend it is terrible, and I'm also troubled by its use by some American blacks as a term of endearment (although I would place the onus more on the black community to stop this usage, rather than on these supposed evil corporations who encourage it). But in an academic setting the use of the word is different. How can we explore controversial topics in history or current society if we can't even use certain words in academic discourse? What do you think about Randall Kennedy's book? Does it matter that he's black? What if someone comes from a different society, with a different history, and doesn't see, use or intend a word in the same context? I am, incidentally, a member of a different minority group which has been called more than its fair share of slurs also. I would be offended if someone walking down the street called me one, but not if it was mentioned in a psychology class that was trying to probe racism and prejudice. I might instinctively bristle at hearing the term (as I would for the N-word also) but I value the pursuit of truth and can separate my anger from my reasoning. You seem to have not done that. Also, I resent that you suggest I need to be a member of an oppressed minority group to understand how you feel. Maybe no one can understand the intensely personal feelings that you feel--and that's fine --but how do you know whether someone who's not a member of such a group necessarily can't understand you? Although I am, I think can empathize because I'm simply another thinking, feeling person, not because I'm also a member of a minority group.

Lastly, I was speaking of James Bryant Conant, of course, who was still Harvard's president in the early 1950s and stood up to McCarthy-like witch-hunts while still affirming that people with deep ideological biases cemented by formal membership in an organization that demanded of them certain behaviors, thoughts, and speech, could not be true academics who's creed is only a dispassionate search for truth, wherever it may lead.

At 9:30 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

"The overwhelmingly positive effects that corporations have on people"? Do you mean destroying the environment through toxic waste, lobbying for violent military coups and puppet regimes, and mass producing deadly products (be they firearms, cigarettes, Meat'normous Omelet Sandwiches, and the like)? Or do you mean employing thousands of low-wage workers without healthcare domestically and patting themselves on the back for paying little kids in some distant and darker-peopled country 10 cents an hour in the name of high returns for the wealthy and cognitively dissonanced? On a very basic level, Elephant, I am not for any organization that does not seek making global society more equitable. I feel that this fight is far too important to be neglected and that's why I've devoted so much of myself to this struggle and will devote my future to it as well. As has been speculated in previous comments on previous posts, I do not say this to say that everyone must devote their entire lives to this. The problem is that too few do and so others must bear more of the brunt of the work. If everyone (with the power to do so) did their part the workload would be miniscule. The pervading ideology must change before actions can, however.

Please stop ascribing inanimate entities (corporations) personality traits ("evil", "immoral", etc.). They are nothing without people that support them. Ascribe these labels to those people.

I don't advocate a return to the stone age, but what do you consider a "real future"? The one that I think you're envisioning (correct me if I'm wrong) is the one that capitalists and international development supporters envision but one that is an impossibility: a future where every nation is "developed" and has a free market and a democracy and its people speak a European lingua franca and practice a non-aggressive religion. How about we not make everyone try to follow the England or the U.S model? Both of these countries are ripe with problems including violence at all levels of society and inequality in numerous spheres of life, to name a but a few things. All nations and their stewards (the PEOPLE) should strive towards something more. Something better. Something less strenuous once achieved. Something where people share their resources to ensure that no one has unmet need for anything (and therefore resorts to theft, murder, or sabotage to attain that which they need). I believe that's real and achievable and I don't think that's the stone age--a digression--I think that's an exponential progression.

The N-word is offensive in ALL contexts. As previously stated, venue and speaker do not matter to me. I also wish Blacks would stop using it in reference to once another, Elephant. We agree on that. People can talk about it, but I just feel that it should not be uttered. Butzlaff could have said "The 'N' word" as we are now. He chose not to. Some may feel that I'm being unfair, ridiculous, or suppressive in not wanting the word uttered by anyone, but I am just cognizant of the negative feelings immediately inspired by its utterance having encountered its usage far too often (and the feeling never dissipates). In academic discourse an "OK" pass is not given to racism or its support as expected and accepted.

As an empiricist on things like this, I feel that you DO need to be a member of a particular oppressed group to truly understand them and where they're coming from as well as their feelings and actions. Otherwise, the best you can do is be an active outside supporter or ideological advocate. I ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEE that if every undergrduate at Harvard spent a week living the life that my family in rural Nigeria lives or the life that I lived growing up in Trenton or the life that my mentee lives growing up in the inner-city housing projects of Boston you would understand. It's no Laguna Beach.

Empathy is not a substitute for experience or camaraderie. Forgive me for my frankness, but you simply can't empathize with what I'm saying. If you did, you wouldn't think corporations had "overwhelmingly positive effects" or a White person saying the "N" word around a Black person in the U.S. is ever OK.

I haven't read Randall Kennedy's book on the word in question.

If (James Bryant) Conant said that communists lack the freedom of thought and speech to engage in academia productively, I'll counter with the statement that capitalists lack the freedom of thought and speech to engage in society productively. All of that's beside the point of my post, however. Don't forget: I'm not a Communist ;)

At 11:48 AM, Anonymous Guess Why said...

Eliminating the n-word in every context, including (or should I say, especially) academia is absolutely ridiculous, and I am surprised that we are even seriously debating this. First and foremost, black writers, artists, and thinkers have used the word in a plethora of works to convey ideas and emotions that could not be solicited in any other way but to delve deep into the "troublesome" word and its "peculiar history" (to paraphrase Randall Kennedy). And this includes substituting euphemisms like "Negro" or "n-word." One could point to Langston Hughes' famed poem about his visit to Baltimore, Malcolm X's "I'm A Field Negro," numerous Black Panther Party speeches and writings, David Walker's incindiary Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, and so on and so on. This is, of course, to say nothing of the non-black artists and authors (mostly more recently than in the past, of course) who have used the word in their works to convey similar emotion and message-- one thinks of Dabydeen, Twain, etc. I think to deny it's use in any context is an untenable position that denies artists (in the broader sense) access to one of the most emotive words in the English language. Moreover, in an academic context, it completely precludes the accurate and in-depth study of US history, social pyschology, sociology, anthropology, political science, literature, music, and much else where the use of the word sometimes has significant value in understanding particular subjects.

Also, while you may have a strong negative reaction to the word that you (and perhaps rightfully so) connect with its terrible historical legacy, you seem to me to be ignoring the nature of language, in that words are not static-- they evolve and acquire/lose meanings over time. One such word, of course, would be queer, which once was used primarily to offend effiminate men and homosexuals, and now has been widely reaffirmed as a positive identity by some. I do not think that "nigger" has lost any of its bite when used in the right context...eg, "I hate big-lipped niggers on welfare," but I don't think you can deny (whether you agree with it or not) that it has acquired a more benign meaning amongst a large group of African-Americans since the 1970s. One could argue that it has all sorts of implicit dehumanizing features that its users do not recognize, but I'm not sure if that could extend to every usage of it amongst African-Americans. There is, undoubtedly, a genuine sense of affection that is often embodied in certain usages in certain situations, for example "That's my nigga!" or "Where my niggas at?!" I think it is fair for you to ask that people not call you that, or use it in your presence, and even for you to suggest that people shouldn't use it, but to deny that it is possible for others to reinterpret and use it for their own purposes seems a little to authoritarian, and not justified enough for my tastes. And, from my reading anyway, I don't think you honestly feel that every time it is used it is earth-shatteringly offensive and stomach-turning because, quite frankly, you listen (and claim to love) hip-hop. If you honestly believed that every use of it was significantly degrading black humanity and agreed that we should not participate in the degredation of black humanity, you probably could not listen to the vast majority of rap without having an emotional breakdown. Even the so-called progressive or conscious artists like Common, Kanye, or Nas and their artistic forebears like the Last Poets, Gil-Scott Heron, or Curtis Mayfield use the word time and time again to get a point across that many people find value and inspiration in, precisely because of the way the word is used in context.

At 12:30 PM, Anonymous Elephant said...


To respond to the three threads of the discussion in turn:

You said that "On a very basic level, Elephant, I am not for any organization that does not seek making global society more equitable." I think that this is the crux of why it's difficult for us to engage each other on these capitalism/????ism issues, because you see equity as a value in and of itself, while I see the striving towards an approximately global maximum of productivity as a value. I claim you advocate a return to the "stone age" because empirically the pursuit of equity has been shown to lead to the result of equally impoverished (and not just with respect to wealth) people. By contrast, the pursuit of global maximums of productivity has been empirically shown to lead to both poor and rich people, but a world in which the poor are incalculably better off than if they were in the stasis of equitable, extreme poverty. There are theoretical reasons that help explain these [empirical observations as well.

I still maintain that while no one can truly understand how another feels, because we are all individuals with personal reactions, thoughts, and emotions, I don't think someone needs to be a member of a minority group (or your minority group) to understand you as well as some other member of your minority group. In some ways everyone is a member of a minority group, but even more importantly we're thinking and feeling human beings, and the power of thought, education and imagination is sufficient to bridge the gaps formed by the color of our skin, albeit not the idiosyncrasies of our brains.

Now about the N-word . . . thank you for articulating your position more clearly, and I think we're more or less in agreement. I wouldn't hesitate to talk about the N-word were I to teach a psychology class, or a class on the history or racism, but I wouldn't be comfortable saying it even in that context, because the viscerally unpleasant reaction I get to hearing it uttered is not dissimilar to how I feel when I see a swastika, or hear any other number of virulent racial slurs. I'm glad though, that you distinguish between hearing the word itself and talking/writing/thinking about it, and I'm glad that we both agree that it doesn't matter who you are when you say it. Even so, as much as I don't like the word and wouldn't choose to say it or write it myself, I'd support anyone's freedom to say it, as much as I wish they wouldn't. Maybe it's worth mentioning to someone who does use it in an academic context that you find its utterance offensive, but I think it's critical to emphasize that you don't object to discussing the use of the word, and don't intend to have a chilling effect on academic freedom.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Jersey Slugger said...

To Guess Why: Despite what is "absolutely ridiculous", I'm fighting for it nonetheless. Many would say that global civil equity is "absolutely ridiculous". Three years ago, administrators at my high school felt that me going to Harvard was "absolutely ridiculous". Despite the improbablity of things happening, ideals should be striven for nevertheless.

Yes, language evolves and is not static and different individuals harbor distinct interpretations of the "N" word and what it means to them. Nevertheless, I would argue that the negative effect it has on all of its users outweighs the positive usages of the word. People who use it in a negative way are attempting to tap into the innermost vile and contemptuous feelings--whether in themselves or the person they are addressing--humans possess. People who use it in a positive way (i.e. as a term of endearment) are simply following along the path set by their predecessors and are obviously unconscious or dismissive of its negative effects to the detriment of them and the person who they address. Every time they use the word in addressing someone they are not only bringing that individual down to what is pervasively believed in society to be something negative, they are desensitizing them to these implications and therefore leaving them open to continue feeling as if the word is an apt description of them or a friend or other peer. I would hope that no one has such low self-regard.

There's no earth-shattering feeling every time I hear the word (especially in a musical or other entertainment context), true. There should be some rustling of feathers, however, since a young and White demographic is soaking up this material and internalizing Blacks as the "N" word since Kanye said it's OK (not to mention the young Black kids). That's what I have a problem with. I don't seek to be authoritarian like C. Delores Tucker and forbid the language, but I want these purportedly "conscious" rappers to be "conscious" of the Black degradation that they're spewing to the U.S. middle-class "leaders" of tomorrow.

To Elephant: As you are, Elephant, I'm definitely for a global maximum of producitivity. It's just that I want that productivity to be for the betterment of all peoples of the world and not soley for those with enough capital, political voice, or personal connections.

If the empirical evidence on equity you speak of is drawn from places like China, Cuba, and the U.S.S.R. then yes, something contemporarily comparable to the stone age may be the case. However, where is the evidence for "equally impoverished" peoples and societies? This has never been the case historically becuase high-ranking politicians have been far above (financially and socially) their national constituency due to their delegation of what the state delivers to each of its people: starting with themselves. Capitalist practices by the political and social elite of non-capitalist nations also does not lead to an equally impoverished population. It leads to a rift between the "haves" and the "have nots". As the great Omali Yeshitela (read his stuff!) once said, "The police become necessary in human society only at that junction in a society where it is split between those who have and those who ain't got."

I don't feel that the poor are better off in capitalist society than in non-capitalist ones. Extreme poverty only exists in societies where necessary resources are not equally distributed.

The point on having to be a member of a particular "minority" or otherwise oppressed group in order to understand them and their pathology is something we're just going to differ on. I do agree with you that "the power of thought, education and imagination is sufficient to bridge the gaps formed by the color of our skin." This has to begin with the oppressive group realizing the negative effects that their policies, practices, and culture have on the subjugated populace and acting to change those policies, those practices, and that culture. It also requires them to give up the immense privelege they have as controllers of these things and not many are willing to do that. Class suicide is not easy. Any takers?

Ditto on the N-word.


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