Our society cannot function properly if we decide that our best interests lie in granting or prohibiting certain groups of people from using words based along racial lines.
I believe there are three spheres where language exists: your own area of influence, such as your home or your space; the public sphere, where there is not much control to be had over other people’s speech; and someone else’s area of influence, somewhere that you may find yourself being a guest in. Your own sphere of influence is obviously determined by what you deem acceptable.
Conversely, if you are a guest in, say, someone else’s house, their idea of acceptable is the rule. The public sphere is murkier in some ways, but as a society, we must not deem different standards of language or actions for different people. I will use my experience running the teen room of a youth organization and the use of the “n-word” by teens in that room as an example.
My general rule for the teen room that I led prohibited the use of the n-word under any contextual circumstance. I do not care for the endearment factor, I certainly loathe the racist factor (and the use of that word between white and black teens did in fact happen a couple times during heated disagreement, but often when the white or non-black teens did use the words, it was during the quoting of rap lyrics they may have been listening to on their phones, which then led to near fights.)
The teen room was a room under my sphere of influence, and I know enough about the origins of the n-word to despise its use in any context. However, much pushback existed between the black teens and me over the rule. Their argument was that because they were black, they can use the word freely. I did not allow this, but I did offer a tongue and cheek deal: I will allow the room to operate as a public space in terms of language and cancel my rule, but if that happens, all words are open for use by anybody. The deal was not taken, nor did I intend for it to be.
The excuse of “this is our word” is not a way our society can function by, and although the above example is for the n-word, this goes for all language. I cannot and would not stop those teens out in public if I heard them use the word. I do not possess that power outside my sphere of influence. When I go visit my biological family at their homes in Waterloo, I tolerate their use of language I do not generally approve of, but at the same time, I can choose to leave if I ever wanted to.
The above example illustrates the n-word as its focus, but this same thing can be true of a plethora of other words as well. The larger problem that exists is that if (and I know many of you that will read and post hilarious comments on Facebook toward this article, vehemently disagreeing with me) you decide that some words belong only to specific racial or other immutable characteristic groups, then that contributes to a wider cultural gap where we essentially “other” ourselves.
Take this excerpt from a 2014 article by Jen Jackson concerning cultural appropriation: “When Miley Cyrus danced around with hypersexualized black women, put on a ‘Blaccent,’ and promoted illegal drug use as a means of having fun, she wasn’t showing how cool it is to be black. She was showing how limited her view of black humanity is. Both artists [Katy Perry and Cyrus] — though Iggy Azalea, Justin Bieber, Macklemore and a host of others could be slotted in to make this point — play on the worst stereotypes of black people to make a mockery of actual human beings. By wearing us as promotional costumes or draping us across their shoulders like feathered boas, they fetishize black bodies and make us into novelties for white consumption.”
I actually agree with Jackson to a point, but though there may be validity to that point, this does not change the fact that those same stereotypes, images, words and actions are perpetuated throughout hip hop music by black artists all the time.
If we, as minorities, can look at stereotyping with annoyance and disgust — and rightfully so — we must also decide how to interpret what messages we send in as well. Creating different standards for people racially, whether that be language or actions, and subsequently claiming that we, as a racial unit can do this but they, as a different racial unit, cannot, leads directly to “othering” and adds to the racial and political division still being experienced today. It also offers up “acceptable” negative stereotypes portrayed in different rap and hip hop music.
This is why, in terms of combating racial division, it is important to view yourself as an individual and not simply a part of a racial collectivization, both black, white or whatever race. If someone does attack you or challenge you based on race, that is clearly unacceptable and disgusting, but that is the point being made.
We cannot organize our society, especially in the massive public sphere, in such a way that defines actions or words right or wrong depending on racial makeup; race relations cannot progress in such a society.