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Paula Deen and the N-word

Last night, I was out with friends at 12 Mile Limit when Paula Deen flashed across the bar’s television screen. Apparently, Target had just dropped her after her publisher had cancelled her book. My friend, an African American man in his forties said he didn’t want to apologize for Paula Deen but he could certainly understand where she was coming from as his brother worked in a kitchen and anytime he had gone around to visit his brother there, he was greeted with the N-word by him and the other staff. “She said she hears that from her kitchen staff all the time.”

And so began the evening that was meant to be a social one, a night to catch up with friends, but given the climate of racism in America, quickly became a reckoning of what it is like to be young, male and Black in this country.

“WHAT?” my friend’s wife said to him.

My friend said it’s true, that Black men, especially young ones greet each other with that word all the time. And I pointed out a scene from Lee Mun Wah’s If These Halls Could Talk, where Mark says, we turned the word “n—” into a term of endearment, do you know how hard that is on us?

Then I began to really hear what my friend was saying, as a man, as a Black man, in this country, he is subject to the N-word as a term of endearment on a daily basis and he feels helpless to call it out for fear of losing his maleness, his Blackness among his peers. He told his wife, “You never have to deal with this, Black women don’t do that to one another.”

I told my friends about a book I had read when I adopted Tin – Real Boys: Rescuing our Boys from the Myth of Boyhood by William Pollack, which is based on his research at Harvard:

Real Boys explores this generation’s “silent crisis”; why so many boys are sad, lonely, and confused although they may appear tough, cheerful, and confident. Pollack challenges conventional expectations about manhood and masculinity that encourage parents to treat boys as little men, raising them through a toughening process that drives their true emotions underground. Only when we understand what boys are really like, says Pollack, can parents and teachers help them develop more self-confidence and the emotional savvy they need to deal with issues such as depression and violence, drugs and alcohol, sexuality and love.

I was raised with four brothers and thought I knew something about boys, but after reading this book I saw the role of boys in this country has been fraught with contradictions – man up, don’t cry, act tough, protect, never let them see you sweat. Add color onto the skin of this same young man, and now you have a human being who has to deny who they are through most interactions.

The plight of the Black man in this country is fraught with complexities from the get go – to start your history in this country enslaved, to bear witness to atrocities against the very people you are supposed to protect, to be barred from the power base when what is supposed to be your man-badge is power, and now put them in this “post-racial” landscape and what’s a Black man to do?

We ganged up on my friend – because we were two women and he had started off by sympathizing with Paula Deen, we stayed on him, until I realized what he was saying – what’s a Black man to do? His wife, said call out anyone saying the N-word. He said and what? Risk being thought of as a punk? I said, I would hope that if you had Tin with you and you heard it, you would say something so my son doesn’t think it’s acceptable. “I could for him,” he said. “But I can’t say ‘man don’t say that word’ to my brother and his friends, I can’t say that to the young boys on the bus who were obviously educated but were calling each other n-this and n-that.”

I went to an N-word seminar by Dr. Eddie Moore and still am working on how to teach my son about this word that has become so pervasive because where it pops up the most is in mass media and we all know that white men control mass media and so they don’t have the same discomfort the rest of us do with the N-word.

What does it mean to be a man today? What does it mean to be a Black man now? What does it mean to use or hear the N-word as a Black man?

I know all about what it means to be a woman, to be marginalized because you’re Jewish in a Christian nation, then drilled down deeper to being a Spanish Jew (Sephardic) and other among Jews, add the Spanish part by virtue of a diaspora (Spain to Turkey), foreign by virtue of your father’s birthplace (Cuba), bisexual or fluid as I like to label my own self – and now I know what it means to be white on top of it all. We are one and all of us negotiating our identities at any given time when we are not the dominant group, but as a mother of an African American son who knows the world he is going to grow up in, I know I don’t have the right to tell any young Black man about their use of the N-word, but I have a right to be appalled by any white person who uses it and I can and do call them out, and I have an obligation to educate my son so he knows just what that word means. When you say the N-word to one person, you say it to all people, and I want to make sure that when Tin hears the word, a picture comes to his mind that he is hearing someone call Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Dubois, Muhammed Ali, Alex Haley, Bobby Seale, James Earl Jones, Louis Armstrong, Thurgood Marshall, Stevie Wonder and even to himself that word and then I could ask him “How does that feel?”


By Rachel Dangermond

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