Recently, it has come out that in his rant against Barack Obama while he thought his mic was off, Jesse Jackson used the “N” word. This was talked about on all the media outlets. It showed Jackson’s hypocricy because he had been one of the most vocal proponents of eliminating the “N” word from the American vernacular in light of the racist tirade by Michael Richards during a comedy routine. Yesterday, on “the View”, there was a heated argument about whether the “N” word should be eliminated or if it’s fine for black people to still use that word.
Most media coverage of this conversation on “the View’ was sympathetic to Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s view that the “N” word shouldn’t be used by anyone including black people. She also got sympathy because she was crying.
So I just wanted to address a few issues. I am on the side of Whoopi Goldberg and Sheri Sheppard on this issue. I think oppressed people can take an oppressive word and find empowerment and agency in turning that word into something positive, which takes away the power from the oppressor. I think I get annoyed when white people think this word should be eliminated because they can’t say it. If white people can’t say it, then nobody else can say it. That’s the rule many times. If white people can’t say it or do it, then no one should be able to do it. When I say a joke or a comment about my own culture, white people will commonly say, “if I said what you’re saying about Asian Americans, I would get beat up.” So thus, the white person will tell me, since he or she cannot say it, then I shouldn’t be able to say it. But context is key. It does matter who is saying it and what is the purpose. This is not to say that I can say whatever I want and it’s ok. There is much discernment that needs to be taken. I shouldn’t just say things loosely and not be respectful of other people. But I don’t think it’s the place of white people to tell people of color what they can or can’t say. When I give into their demands, there is definitely a sense of disempowerment. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t listen to their side and respect their opinions. But I think sometimes we get stuck in this rut where the validity of words and actions are determined primarily by white people. By the way, I am not necessarily taking a side in whether the N-word should be allowed to be used by African Americans or not. I am not an African American and that’s a conversation that needs to happen in the African American community. I’m more dealing with the larger issue of whether white people have the right to tell people of color what they can say or do.
The other issue I want to focus is on is that somehow in a dialogue on race, the conversation stops when the white person cries or when the white person gets hurt. Then the focus and the attention goes to them and the conversation disappears. In the media coverage of the conversation “the View” had, Elizabeth Hasselbeck was made to be a courageous woman speaking truth, while Whoopi Goldberg and Sheri Sheppard were characterized as the angry black women. It just reminded me of the numerous conversations I’ve had in the past, where once the white person would express being hurt, then the conversation would stop and people would try to console that person. Then the focus would be about the pain of the white person and that would be end of the dialogue. Then the default reaction for the people of color is to validate the white person’s feelings. I know as an Asian American, there’s this automatic reaction to apologize and to accommodate to whatever the white person is feeling. Usually, it is followed by the use of unversal language, like, “we’re all the same,” and “we’re all God’s children,” followed by cliches about colorblindness. I am always assuming that we are all God’s children and that yes we are equal in God’s eyes. Duh! So that is true. But that cannot end the conversation. I appreciated that Whoopi Goldberg kept her ground even when Elizabeth Hasselbeck was crying. It’s apparent that Whoopi Goldberg cares about Elizabeth Hasselbeck, but was still courageous enough to stand her ground and not just capitulate her point when the white person expressed how hurt he or she was. I think individual feelings do matter. But sometimes, a dialogue that is constructive and real will go beyond just individual feelings and yes it will hurt people, including white people.
I know the issue is much more complex than what I state. It’s hard to fully articulate everything in one blog post and I know I still have so much to learn. But that’s the question I have – Why does the conversation have to stop when the white person cries.