Look, white people. This shit (among other things) has got to stop.
What shit? This shit. And you know it's shit, because it's a white boy acting all socially aware and junk, and by that I mean he's kind of whining 'cause us white folks don't get to use the n-word in public. Because we have all kinds of non-racist reasons for wanting to use the n-word. Srsly! I myself don't like the word, and don't particularly want to use it, but I understand that it's kind of off-limits for me anyway, because I'm a white person. But guess who doesn't feel she gets to dictate whether black people get to use it? Me.
In the interest of full disclosure I'll admit I am a humorless feminist and let's all be honest here: sometimes really well-done satire can just go right over the heads of even the best of us. Guilty! So I'll admit that's a possibility, and I'm just not perceptive [read: smart -- ed.] enough to read between the lines of Pinkerton's impressive wit and insight which so thoroughly permeates the piece. Let us dissect the piece, which does contain some truly brilliant and incisive instances of satire.
For instance, you say? Check this out, this masterful opening line which is reminiscent of ethnographic films of the early 20th century, wherein a camera goes to Africa to live among the natives and give us a close look at the lives of
I lived in a fairly integrated neighborhood in New York and would often overhear black teenagers using the n-word in casual conversation.Here, the ethnographer takes an undue amount of credit for living among and studying an indigenous people. I'm with you. Continue, sir.
When I say “using” I’m understating a little. These guys were giving the n-word the most exhaustive workout I’ve ever heard, substituting it for adjectives, verbs, punctuation and proper nouns in ways it was never meant to accommodate.The ethnographer is confused; the natives speak their strange hodge-podge language composed of a bastardization of one of the good, upstanding Western (possibly Romance) languages and their awkward clicky-clacky language.
Taboo, incendiary, upsetting: the n-word is many things. What it isn’t is versatile.The well-meaning ethnographer, seeing the indigents' stagnant culture, decides he must intervene in their backward lives. This is getting to be much too funny.
At one point in the conversation, for instance, one of the teenagers turned to another and said “N—–r was goin’ to the n—–r, n—–r, but n—–r n—–red it up on the n—–r.” I’m not joking. That’s a direct quote.Here we are introduced to the exemplary member of the group, whom the ethnographer chooses to focus on specifically, as if one member of even a small group of people could be representative of all of them.
I spent the better part of five minutes walking quietly behind them parsing through all the name and place substitutions, but eventually gave up: I had no idea what the hell this kid was talking about.Now we have the - to me, hilarious - image of the white scholar literally following these black teenagers, taking notes and listening carefully to their conversation, presented carefully in a neutral tone, ignoring the absurdity and rather creepy reality of an adult white man following and observing several black youths intently. The ethnographer here is just so dumbfounded at the customs and mannerisms of these people who are so different from him. Yet the important similarities remind him of the fundamental humanity of this gentle people:
His friends seemed to grasp his meaning,Yes, it's the similarities that are so important. Perhaps he can see a bit of himself in the group of teenagers:
though personally, I like to imagine the opposite is true: that they, like me, were completely lost. Their enthusiastic overuse of the n-word had started as a loud and provocative public exercise meant to embarrass guys like me and establish them as “screw-you” teens with a healthy disrespect for social mores. But it had somehow managed to get away from them by the ten-minute mark, and now they could only soldier on, helpless, none of them wanting to be the first to admit their conversation had descended into a hopeless gibberishy mess composed of a single word.Or perhaps he's going to take us deeper into the mind of the ethnographer, and show us the real thought process of the people who so blatantly objectify and profit off of the exotic, the Other. I can just imagine the ethnographer's inner monologue: How could anyone possibly understand that clicky-clacky nonsense? God, what language is that anyway, gibby-gabby? How could a group of friends develop their own language? It's not as if small groups of people who spend a lot of time together sometimes have a lexicon all their own that's virtually unintelligible to outsiders. And so, completely ignoring a number of the concepts one can find in any introductory sociology class, the ethnographer instead concludes that they must be pulling one over on the stranger in their midst. Here, he shows us the over-inflated sense of importance white people place on their whiteness, and hence, themselves, in relation to people of color. Even young people in mixed-race neighborhoods in New York recognize and value his whiteness, much as Kong in the 1933 film King Kong valued Ann Darrow's whiteness over that of the native women. However, they feel social pressure from their friends to affect a contempt for whiteness; reaction formation occurs, and they hatch a plan in their idiosyncratic language to rebel, in their own small way, against the white man.
But now he begins to make a brilliant connection between ethnography and modern-day racism in PC white people who just can't stand that black people got something they don't. Check it:
Come on now, though: “N—–r was goin’ to the n—–r”? As a swearing connoisseur, I’m sorry, that’s just lazy. If we were walking down the street and I turned to you and said “Motherfucker was going to the motherfucker, motherfucker,” I’d like to think you’d have the decency to pull me aside and tell me how ridiculous I sounded. “Your heart’s in the right place, motherfucker, but you really need to learn to swear properly before you try and do it in public, bitch.”In this paragraph, he steps back from the ethnographer persona and assumes the average white dude persona again. Average white dudes, of course, have a tendency to view the n-word as a simple swear word, one that is not loaded with hundreds of years of violent oppression which continues today. As Pinkerton says later, to these average white dudes, it "doesn't really mean what it used to mean anymore." This is loaded with assumptions, which Pinkerton is clearly aware of. Most prominently, it assumes that all black people use the n-word as a non-derogatory term, that not one single black person takes offense to it when other black people do it (of course, you and I - and Pinkerton, of course - can think of at least four prominent black people who do), and therefore that some black people are representative of all black people. It also assumes that the word should mean the same thing coming from different groups of people - say, black people vs. white people. And if the n-word is a simple swear word with no power to offend outside of the inherent offense caused by its simply being a swear word, well. Why shouldn't white folks get to use the word?
Next, Pinkerton depicts the appropriation of the word by youth culture as a simple thoughtless act of teenage rebellion, ignoring the process of reclamation of historically derogatory words by oppressed groups and turning that word into a label to be proud of, rather than continue to allow it to oppress (this has also been seen in other communities of people of color, as well as within queer communities):
Because any new generation loves nothing more than to flagrantly violate the taboos of their parents—teenagers are dicks, after all—the n-word doesn’t really mean what it used to mean anymore.Here Pinkerton marginalizes the effect that reclamation of oppressive words has on the people who reclaim it and implies it is simply a silly act of teenagers being "dicks." (Note here that I recognize that for some people the process of reclamation is problematic. As a queer who uses words like faggot and dyke in positive ways, I have engaged in it myself, but I feel uncomfortable generalizing my own experience to all marginalized groups, and I only remark upon it positively since the positive aspects experienced by some people who engage in reclamation seem to be part of the point of Pinkerton's critique of white culture, the history of ethnography in American culture, and his connection of the white desire to use the n-word to the desire to observe exoticized cultures but not to actually understand them.)
White people discussing race and race relations in the United States always come from a place of privilege, a privilege which has led them to believe that their opinions, even the ones which are rife with specious reasoning and have an evident lack of examination of other perspectives, are important, and that their right to free speech means having the right to be, well, as Pinkerton might put it, a dick; when someone rather more well-read than they are comes along and tells them everything that is wrong with their poorly-researched and poorly-stated opinion, they become sensitive to what is often called a "PC culture," and every time in the future that they wish to discuss race, they begin, for fear of being called racist, to disclaim their (still) poorly-researched and poorly-stated opinions, saying that of course racism still exists but only in the Southern U.S., lol hillbillies amirite? Pinkerton's piece, of course, must then contain the following to completely critique white racist thinking:
Admittedly, I’m positive there’s still an uncomfortably large number of ignorant hillbillies who employ the n-word in its original racist sense. But that’s the point: they’re ignorant hillbillies.Here, Pinkerton demonstrates the notion that only ignorant hillbillies are racist (incidentally, I've known some ignorant hillbillies who weren't racist. Imagine that.) and the notion that if one simply insists they aren't racist, then they aren't, since good intentions, no matter how willfully ignorant, never hurt anyone.
The use of the n-word by many successful rappers has led to something of a commercialization of the word, and some have equated the so-called harmfulness of rap music, which some regard as harmful to black people as a whole because of its glorification of black-on-black violence and rampant misogyny, with the use of the n-word. However, the commercialization of the word has led some people, like the ones Pinkerton satirizes here, to claim the very opposite: that its very commercialization means that it is distinctly not harmful now, that really is just another word:
For the rest of us uncool white people, who’ve grown up in an age of bestselling hip-hop albums and overpriced Sean Jean-branded leisurewear, “n—-r” managed to become a cool word for “friend” that black people get to use and we can’t, because our forebears were racist slave-owning assholes. [...] As a constant guilty reminder for my generation that it wasn’t too long ago that things were a lot different, it’s incredibly effective. But the fact remains that it’s the last taboo swear word on the planet, dammit, and I can’t help but feel jealous.In this paragraph, Pinkerton also approaches the subject of white guilt, and the resentment that many whites now feel at being forced, at times, to check their privilege - a resentment which is doubled because now there is something that is truly out of their reach, something to which they are not entitled (at least in polite/right-thinking company): the use of a word which black people get to use, but not us. Admittedly, for me, the concept of white privilege was once a difficult one, because it is easy to conclude that, as a white person who has inevitably benefited from white privilege at one point or another, one is actually a racist oneself. In American society, being called a racist is quite offensive, even if you've just said something that is undeniably racist: just watch Bill O'Reilly bristle at being called racist. What is not often said to white people who have just had that astounding moment where they've just been called on racist statements is that there is a certain level of ignorance that comes with privilege that isn't really one's own fault, it's just symptomatic of growing up and living in a society where you are intrinsically valued more because you happen to have less melanin in your skin. It's not often said because the white person in question will often immediately fly off the handle at being called racist, and then shrug off anything said to them as overly-sensitive and symptomatic of "PC culture," where everyone gets to say offensive shit but white people.
And PC culture is implicitly indicted in Pinkerton's final few points:
Personally, I think it’d make huge in-roads to racial harmony if a representative body of the black community—the NAACP, perhaps—let the white community take the n-word for a spin on a designated day, with the tacit understanding that we’re only allowed to use it to address other white people. It’d give us the thrill of a whole new swear word while avoiding all the unpleasant racist history associated with it.Whenever someone from a marginalized group or allies of marginalized groups speaks up against racist jokes and comments, the inevitable trump card of the one making the racist comment basically comes down to something like this: All them minorities should just chill the fuck out. This is present throughout Pinkerton's piece, which culminates in a brilliantly absurdist reductive suggestion: racial harmony is well within our reach, if black people would just chill and let us use the n-word. Of course, a corollary to this is that it is black people's fault that there's so much of that pesky racial tension in the air. When in doubt, the privileged person always blames the person who is harmed by his or her privilege. It's black people's fault they get so offended when we want to use the n-word because they won't let us use the n-word because they get so offended etc. To top it all off he reprises the white person assumption that any group of black people - any group at all - is representative of all black people; I'm sure he mentioned the NAACP by name in response to the move by certain members of the NAACP to discourage the use of the n-word by blacks and whites alike, perhaps calling into question the efficacy of attempting to stop the use of any word, which often serves only to make it more powerful.
I say Pinkerton's suggestion is absurdist because it really digs at the folly of the whole white urge to use the n-word: placing a ridiculous restriction on the usage of the word which is clearly conscious of the very real meaning which Pinkerton has denied for the duration of the piece. If white people are only allowed to use the word in reference to other white people, then we will literally be calling white "black". White is not black, yet in Pinkerton's incisively satirical world, it is. White can be black, but Pinkerton seems to take comfort in the fact that white will only ever be black in name only; remember, the desire is to observe and participate in an Othered culture while making no real effort to understand:
I can’t imagine I’d even use it that often. Mainly I just I think it’d be hilarious to sneak a “n—a, please” or two into an otherwise maudlin wedding reception toast.So I guess it's possible after all. Maybe all these average white dudes who so passionately claim that their oft-voiced desire to use the n-word is really just satire really are just trying to get at the heart of it all, to show us all how white privilege so permeates all us white peoples' existence that we'd even insist on using a word which many regard as terrible, with a long and brutal history behind it, just because all them black people use it.
Or maybe I was right to begin with. Maybe Pinkerton's vaguely-defined group of urban black youth is really just a pack of lies. There may very well be some group of black kids, somewhere, who think it's pretty funny to use the n-word as every part of a sentence - I mean, I think it's pretty funny, too, especially if they were doing it to freak out that creepy-ass white dude following them so closely. But I doubt Pinkerton's ever encountered them. I think he's just an average white dude with a whole lot of fucking privilege who can't stand that some social restraints are placed on his white dudeliness. And it really pisses me off that he'd hold up a group of strawblackpeople who apparently know only one word - the n-word - as an example of why us white people really are entitled to use the word. He reduces and reduces, until he comes up with a word that is entirely meaningless to him but probably means a lot to someone like this lady, for example. Or it might not mean anything to her. She might be the funny old grandmother who slips in a "nigga please" into a maudlin wedding toast. And that would be awesome. I think he's kind of a dick for writing something like this and posting it to his blog, and I think all those other white people who write about it and talk about it as this stupid little thing are dicks, too. I think he is like most white folk, and I think we white folk have been led by our privilege to believe that our opinions, even the ones which are rife with specious reasoning and little examination of other perspectives, are important.
But like I said. I am a humorless feminist.