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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Real Slim Shady

Few things annoy me enough to get me demonstrably upset.

One of those rare, rare things is seeing and hearing a non-black person utter the N-word in a casual manner, as a friendly greeting, for example.

Don't get me wrong. I think the use of the word under any circumstances is wrong.

I am an admitted hypocrite. I've said before I've used the word with buddies, who are also black, when we were certain we weren't within earshot of other people. I've recited it when singing/rhyming along to a favored rap tune. I've laughed my butt off at the Chappelle Show.

Over the past couple of years though, my buddies and I consciously decided to not use it. It has slipped out when we were all alone from time to time, or when we were "accompanying" a CD while driving along. But mostly we've been successful in not using it.

Our logic? If we had to look over our shoulders before using that word with each other, we probably shouldn't have been saying it. Also, even though we knew that we used the word as a term of endearment, like "buddy" or "pal," we're also smart enough to know that some people use the word in a mean-spirited and hateful way. And to many casual observers there's no distinction between the two. So rather than give mean people an excuse to use it as a slur, we figured we'd stop altogether.

So you might understand my chagrin the other night when I hear a commotion - just a lot of loud chatter on the sidewalk in front of my house, and I get up to check it out. As I get to my front door I hear young male voices calling out to each other "Yo, nigger, come here!" "Hey, nigger, grab my keys!" "Nigger, did you hear that (song)?" And so on, and so forth.

My immediate reaction is "What the hell?" just the way you might picture Chris Rock saying it. I am incredulous. I can't see who's talking, but I'm annoyed 'cause I'm thinking first, no one wants or needs to hear that yelled out for the whole block to hear, Second, for all the progress that has been made in this country, let's face it, the casual utterance of that word has given young black men a collective black eye. I say collective, 'cause even those young black men who don't use the word, feel the brunt of the public's disapproving tongue clucks.

Anyway, I step out of my door to try to get a peek at these eloquent speakers, and who do I see? Well, if they were making Children of the Corn: The Teenage Years these three guys could be cast members. White, blond, and blue-eyed.

I realize a moment later that these guys are visiting a neighbor. And until they go inside I get the benefit of the rest of their conversation. It was nothing deep. But every other word was "nigger!"

I swear, I live in bizarro world. Later that night, two of these guys get into a shoving match - did I mention the neighbor they were visiting is an idiot? - in front of their host's house and they're yelling at each other "Nigger, you want to fight?" "What? What?" "Nigger, I will mess you up?"

I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Is 8 Mile II being filmed in Miami, and I wasn't tipped off? Or maybe Eminem's making a new video and these guys are just rehearsing for their audition. Or perhaps they're getting ready for a go at VH-1's The White Rapper Show, assuming that show has a second season.

The funny thing is these kids aren't menacing. They're stupid. If I had to hazard a guess, they still live with their parents in a 'burb that's even more lavish than mine - and mine's not lavish at all. When I came back outside at the second commotion, they saw me and quickly changed their tones...and their language. I think if I'd stomped my foot and said boo they would have turned and run the other way. If they got bashful about talking that way when they saw me, they ain't thugs. Real thugs wouldn't have cared and might have asked me what I was looking at. These kids are typical frauds who have listened to so much gangsta rap they have started to believe that they are menaces to society. They really think that they are peers of the rappers they listen to. They think that they are gangstas.

And that couldn't be more hilarious...or annoying to me.

I don't know if this makes sense to you, but while I hate that word, I grudgingly understand why some black folks have used it with each other casually over the years: it was caste as the lowest of low slurs back in the day. The folks against whom it was used had to just grin and bear it...or when the boss man wasn't around they could give each other comic relief and take the boss's word and jokingly and casually use it among themselves. I say that time has past. Stop it, altogether.

But these kids, what's their excuse for using it?

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  • That word has always made me visciously uncomfortable. And I'm an avid curser. People have asked me if I have Tourettes. Seriously.

    But there's something so insidiously wrong about this word. To me, it's not just gangster slang. It's root is to keep an entire race in their place, to let them know they were a lower class; subhuman even. I don't know how this can be made light it can be brushed off. I can intellectually understand some comedians over-using it to take away the bite, but I can't help it, it just makes me squirm.

    I find it shocking coming from black and white people. Slavery wasn't long enough ago and unfortunately, there are plenty of people who still use this word with it's original meaning.

    By Blogger Lee, at 7:54 PM  

  • They aren't smart enough to carry on a normal conversation.

    Same thing for people who can't talk without every other word being swear word.

    Very soon people will be just walking around grunting (like cavemen)... because the art of conversation is not longer required. Just insults.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 8:39 PM  

  • You said it yourself: stupidity.

    But I'd add "insensitivity" to the list of excuses... though, really, there isn't one.

    By Blogger thirdworstpoetinthegalaxy, at 8:44 PM  

  • These guys need to have real gangsta moment a la "Whiteboys" in Cabrini Green and I mean quick. That's the only cure for their stupidity. Because when they go to jail, they'll find out just how down cats won't be with their slang. This only happens because they don't really know any Black people--if they did, they would be ashamed of themselves.

    I'll not get into "wigger" or "wegro" theory here.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 9:00 PM  

  • As a white male I find the word offensive as can be. It at times beffudles me to hear it bandied about between black men(young or old) as well. Then again I guess it is no different than me one of my friends greeting me as 'whats up a**hole and I take that just fine as a term of endearment." Let someone ELSE say it too me and it is offensive to say the least. Guess it all comes down to context and circumstance I suppose. Interesting topic as usual.


    By Blogger briliantdonkey, at 9:33 PM  

  • I hate that word, as well...but I admit to having used it. Sometimes, I feel it's no different than me and my girlfriends supposedly "lovingly" referring to one another as "bitch."

    Not really a classy thing, all in all.

    I figure it's the same group of society that uses the f-bomb, with every other word.

    I wonder - whether the n-word or f-bomb would have bothered you more?

    By Blogger Tiggerlane, at 10:34 PM  

  • I went many years without hearing that word used by any white people. But, when I moved back to my home town I started going to a gym and there was a group of people, middle aged and older white guys, who used the word often. I was shocked at first to hear it. Then I was just sad that things hadn't changed around here much since I left many years ago.

    By Blogger Jay, at 11:08 PM  

  • watch HAVOC with Anne Hathaway. it explains this whole situation.

    oh and you don't see me callin up my sister and calling her a beaner or a dirty wetback as a term of endearment.

    i just don't think its cool.

    By Blogger Yasamin, at 1:30 AM  

  • I want to be an extra in 8 Mile II, nucca.

    I prefer to use the term nucca. Don't you feel empowered now?

    By Blogger mist1, at 1:38 AM  

  • What made those kids use the N word? Bad example (Rap) & ignorance - theirs.

    Oh, & they're teenagers. Which, unfortunately too often, amounts to the same thing as the previous paragraph!

    By Anonymous bronchitikat, at 6:49 AM  

  • I think it's pathetic. I, too, have seen the middle class white or hispanic boys wearing the big chains and the droopy pants, listening to nasty rap and using that kind of language.

    Do they think that they actually look cool? If they only knew that everyone else is LAUGHING at them -- they look and act ridiculous.

    What would these black-wanna-be's do if you actually took them to a ghetto and left them there??? Probably poop in their pants and call for their mommies. right?

    It's also lazy parenting, when they are allowed to wear the pants with the underwear showing.

    They don't look tough - they look silly.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:49 AM  

  • Trust your instinct, James, these kids ARE menaces to society, ultimately.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 6:55 AM  

  • These kids think it's cool to call each other that because it's become part of the popular culture.

    The "N" word has lost its hurtful meaning for the under 25 crowd because of it's use and overuse as non-threatening slang. Every popular rap album and comedian throws it around so freely that it's bound to find its way into the mouths of our children,

    By Blogger Hammer, at 9:32 AM  

  • James,

    You need to move to a "whiter" neighborhood. That's it.

    By Blogger Matt, at 9:36 AM  

  • James,

    You also have to try to understand the young, white suburban male psyche. We want to be n*ggas, too. It's like you're hogging all the hate, hata.

    By Blogger Matt, at 9:39 AM  

  • I'm 41 and white. I was raised in the south at a time when if you said that word, you were either white trash or looking to get your ass kicked. Since I already knew I was white trash but didn't want to stay that way, and since I had (and still do) an aversion to getting my ass kicked, that word scared me to death. Still does.

    It's one thing to hear black people say it. I can understand using a word in a way that takes the hate out of it. But it still makes me nervous and I still get that white trash feeling.

    By Blogger SWF41, at 11:04 AM  

  • hahah!! I can just imagine the scene and them slinking probably gave them a "look" James!!
    I could never understand why black men call each other that or why women will call each other bitches and hos as a greeting. As far as I can see, it just allows other people to call you that too.

    By Blogger Claudia, at 11:25 AM  

  • James, this word bothers me too. And I, too, have used it when I thought it would be comical.

    However, it's infuriating that there are still so many real haters out there. In board rooms, classrooms, political office, lab coats, black robes, the cubicle next to yours... they're everywhere.

    These children, however, have no clue. And I kind of take offense that some imply that they have no business acting 'black.' They have no business acting ignorant, and that goes for our black children as well. I get demonstrably upset when lesser behavior is equated to blackness.

    By Blogger katrice, at 1:36 PM  

  • Oh crap. I forgot to tell you I dropped Eminem off while I was down there two weeks ago. He must be getting bored. Don't kill me.

    By Blogger Christina_the_wench, at 2:22 PM  

  • Very deep comments, folks. I'm on deadline with a story, 'cause the Burnettiquette crew is taking a road trip starting tomorrow night. But I will reply to y'all in more detail when I get home from the office this evening.

    Ironically, while off of work the rest of the week I'll have more time to blog. Here's to me getting back to a daily posting schedule and visiting you guys' spots daily again.

    Anyway, till this evening.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 4:22 PM  

  • ...did I mention the neighbor they were visiting is an idiot?

    You didn't need to. It is quite apparent.

    I've been told that my northern California upbringing is just way too touchy-feely and that the N-word is "just a word" by both blacks and whites who use it in various capacities.

    I call bullshit. If it was "just a word" then it wouldn't be wielded as such an effective club, it wouldn't get such a terrific reaction when used by washed up comedians, and nobody would have a problem if Americans slid it through the back door of usage into the Dead Word Pool.

    I just find it ironic that the same word used by racist whites use to denigrate black folks is then taken up by some of my "hip" young neighbors who don't seem to realize how ignorant they sound when they use it.

    Ugh. My hatred of that word borders on psychopathy.

    By Blogger Queen of Dysfunction, at 4:36 PM  

  • I'm with Lee. I'm a potty mouth of the first degree, and yet, I never go there. I never take it to the N word. The main reason is that it just isn't in my vernacular. It's not part of my vocab. I think that white folks who so casually fling that word around like it's nothing are having an identity crisis of sorts. They either don't know who they are (young and stupid and don't have it figured out yet) or they're trying to be someone other than the person they think they are. Either way, I have no patience for it.

    By Blogger Melissa, at 10:38 PM  

  • Ignorance, entitlement, general stupidity. It's hard to say. These kids you describe are, unfortunately, everywhere. And they're the same everywhere. Rich parents, good schools, everything they've ever wanted and then some, never having to work for anything, and I think they feel guilty in some way. The guilt compels them to try to be something radically different from what they are. So that's what they decide on.
    Just a theory.

    By Blogger you'dneverguess, at 12:57 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 2:14 PM  

  • You know how I feel about the word from a previous post. I'm going to hope that someday no one knows that it was ever meant as a racial slur.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 2:14 PM  

  • James, what your feeling seems totally understandable. That is a terrible word, but words also exist in context. I use a lot of funny Cuban stuff around other Cubans and we joke about each other, but I would consider it a lack of respect if a non-Cuban uttered the same words or phrases.

    I don't know what to think of today's world with kids posing based on musical culture. I suppose it's not totally new (the 50s, for example, brought up a lot of new phrases when rock and roll was born) and in my time we had valley girl speak, but you knew you were talking that way just for shits & giggles and that there was a time and place for formal speech as well. That's the scary part -- do these kids now how to talk "normally" ... ?

    By Blogger Manola Blablablanik, at 2:23 PM  

  • It's just cultural appropriation, as per usual.

    But I think the "wigga" theory is very interesting - and applicable here. These guys don't have the creativity to come up with their own terms of endearment (?!?) for one another, so they have to steal it from someone else. I think people get off on what they think is "slumming", you know, pretending that they're black?

    Idiots. If it hadn't been so ridiculous, it would be offensive.

    These white guys in my lab are always talking "jive" to one another, which makes me (the only black woman in our lab) want to throw up on them.

    By Blogger bc, at 5:16 PM  

  • I'm with Big Daddy, if these kids had any black friends whatsover, they would not be using the N word. We will say it to each other all day long but will not tolerte it coming from white people.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 10:11 AM  

  • They're simply buying into a hiphop fantasy of grossly exaggerated masculinity. Like others, they crave power, sex and hierarchical domination.

    But you killed their buzz. :)

    By Blogger Matt, at 12:36 PM  

  • 50 Cent usues it and he's cool as shit.

    My guess is that this is the reason. ;)


    By Blogger Steven Novak, at 12:42 PM  

  • I've used the word before, as well. I've used it in much the same way you've described in paragraph 4. However, I will NEVER use the word as a direct insult, such as "You, sir, are a ________." And I will NEVER use that word out in public to be overheard by other people...much the same way I wouldn't use some other words (George Carlin's 7) in public to be overheard by other people.

    Even though I'm white, I don't think my use of the word among my friends in way of greeting (much like "cuz" or "dude") makes me a racist, because I don't use it in a racist, derogatory way.

    I can totally understand how it's offensive to many, because it does carry so much weight and history, recalling such a painful and embarrassing era in our past.

    But I'm going to disagree that it's wrong "under any circumstance." Maybe it's because I'm white, and I honestly don't know just HOW truly offensive it is. But I think it's the intent and sentiment behind the word. If I were to replace "nigger" with "glerk," the sentiment is still there if I were to say, "What do you know? You're just a glerk!"

    By Blogger Kevin, at 2:03 PM  

  • It's that damn rap music, is all I'm sayin'. Makes some adolescent white kids want to act just like the people they see in the videos. Simplistic, but I think that's it. The media creates an image of what is cool and hard, and the kids are socialized to copy it.

    And haven't we gone down this road before?

    By Blogger Fathairybastard, at 6:55 PM  

  • Kevin, are you serious? Do you really think that "glerk" has a similar history as "nigger"?

    I don't think it's because you're white that you don't understand this - I think it's because you aren't really thinking about it....

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:15 AM  

  • James,

    I have to think if you felt that strongly about it you wouldn't buy the music from the people that encourage the behavior.

    As long as the popular rap artists keep using it, the wanna be hip-hop crowd is going to emulate them and sound like the idiots they are.

    By Blogger Wavemancali, at 11:56 AM  

  • Dear N words et al
    I might be a white MF or whatever, but it seems to me that the use of the word nigger and what it means and what it dont mean, and who should use it and who shouldnt takes up too much time and space in our lives. All by itself its not such a bad word. Its just those who try to make it mean something by telling those who use it what they mean by it when they really dont have a clue. They are just trying to empower themselves by controlling the user. its so phony, so plastic, so hypocritical. Now whatever happened to the real slim shady story, the one thats hundreds of years old, the one I used to hear old black men repeat back in the fifties before eminem and other rappers, black or white.

    Does anybody, especially black folk and maybe some poor white trash, ghetto raised or some silver spoons with black nannys and housekeepers ever remember hearing this sing song story. Middle class white people were not likely exposed to it because they were insulated and isolated from black hand me down culture. I was poor white trash, raised in tenant farm areas with black communities like Dogpatch and Sugartown, where white folk didnt dare go into at night for fear of their lives , but under the bright sun you could hear tales like Slim shady and such.
    whatever happened to those days?
    Blacks were poor and downtrodden back then sure, but so were we white folks, too. But least we were white so we had a ticket out, anyway that was the mindset back then.
    But for all of their oppression, I knew a lot of niggers who had a lot of peace of mind. Now I see all these stressed out niggers and whites, niggers trying to act like white, whites patronizing trying to act like niggers, who,me? a racist?
    It makes me sick.

    Wake up, if your a nigger be a niggerif you are whitey be whitey. Be proufd of it. dont let the white man call you black or negro, just to empower yourself and keep the race line taut, Accept the word nigger just as you would the word black or negro. lets be comfortable around each other, where everybody doesnt have to watch everything they say "you people" with out some power hungry rabble rouser ready to condemn, indict fan the racial flames, maintain the racial tension. If you really have soul, like everbody white or black, you need to get in touch with it.
    Give me an Amen! Amen

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:56 AM  

  • American Slavery: Sale of Slaves, Virginia, December 1846

    By Dr. Elwood Harvey

    We attended a sale of land and other property, near Petersburg, Virginia, and unexpectedly saw slaves sold at public auction. The slaves were told they would not be sold, and were collected in front of the quarters, gazing on the assembled multitude. The land being sold, the auctioneer's loud voice was heard, 'Bring up the niggers!'

    A shade of astonishment and affright passed over their faces, as they stared first at each other, and then at the crowd of purchasers, whose attention was now directed to them. When the horrible truth was revealed to their minds that they were to be sold, and nearest relations and friends parted for ever, the effect was indescribably agonizing.

    Women snatched up their babes, and ran screaming into the huts. Children hid behind the huts and trees, and the men stood in mute despair. The auctioneer stood on the portico of the house, and the 'men and boys' were ranging in the yard for inspection. it was announced that no warranty of soundness was given, and purchasers must examine for themselves. A few old men were sold at prices from thirteen to twenty-five dollars, and it was painful to see old men, bowed with years of toil and suffering, stand up to be the jest of brutal tyrants, and to hear them tell their disease and worthlessness, fearing that they would be bought by traders for the Southern market.

    A white boy, about fifteen years old, was placed on the stand. His hair was brown and straight, his skin exactly the same hue as other white persons, and no discernible trace of negro features in his countenance. Some vulgar jests were passed on his colour, and two hundred dollars were bid for him; but the audience said 'that it was not enough to begin on for such a likely young nigger'. Several remarked that they 'would not have him as a gift'. Some said a white nigger was more trouble than he was worth. One man said it was wrong to sell white people. I asked him if it was more wrong than to sell black people. He made no reply. Before he was sold, his mother rushed from the house upon the portico, crying, in frantic grief, �My son, O! my boy, they will take away my dear - .� Here her voice was lost, as she was rudely pushed back and the door closed. The sale was not for a moment interrupted, and none of the crowd appeared to be in the least affected by the scene.

    The poor boy, afraid to cry before so many strangers, who showed no signs of sympathy or pity, trembled, and wiped the tears from his checks with his sleeves. He was sold for about two hundred and fifty dollars. During the sale, the quarters resounded with cries and lamentations that made my heart ache. A woman was next called by name. She gave her infant one wild embrace before leaving it with an old woman, and hastened mechanically to obey the call; but stopped, threw her arms aloft, screamed, and was unable to move.

    One of my companions touched my shoulder and said, 'Come, let us leave here; I can bear no more.' We left the ground. The man who drove our carriage from Petersburg had two sons who belonged to the estate - small boys. He obtained a promise that they should not be sold. He was asked if they were his only children; he answered; �All that's left of eight.� Three others had been sold to the South, and he would never see or hear from them again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:35 AM  

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