A couple of weeks ago I was approached by Ashani Jodha at The Ryersonian to provide some comments about the use of the “N-word” in popular culture and on the racism of the Oscars. I ended up writing a fairly detailed response. The resulting article is pretty interesting (go check it out) but it used only a couple of quotes from what I wrote. This is standard practice and no more than I expected, but I think my more detailed comment makes some points that people may find useful and I’d like to take the liberty of publishing it here.
I’m putting the entire conversation below, including the part where Ashani asks me to get moving because she needs to write her story soon and I’ve been putting on the back burner while working on something else, which is totally something professors will do if you give them half a chance.
The only changes I’ve made has been to add bold face in a few places to emphasize important points and to add links to books and Wikipedia articles that give more information about some of the points I’m making.
On Feb 18, 2015, at 11:32 AM, Ashani Jodha <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
How are you? I am the Features Editor for the Ryersonian and I am doing a feature on the N-word for Black History Month and this year’s racist Oscars. I wanted to know if I could do a brief email interview with you?
Please let me know.
Ashani D. Jodha
Features Editor | Ryersonian
On Wed, Feb 18, 2015 at 11:34 AM, Christopher Powell <email@example.com> wrote:
Yes, I’d be pleased to.
On Feb 18, 2015, at 11:44 AM, Ashani Jodha <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Great! Thank you so very much.
Below are the questions:
1) Why do you think the N-word is still around today? What is your opinion on the difference between “nigger” and “nigga”?
2) Why do you think the N-word has gone from being filled with hatred to being used in song lyrics (Jay-Z, Kanye West, etc.), vines, and comedian punchlines (Kevin Hart)?
3) For a word that carries so much weight (the n-word), why do you think youth culture today are trying to reclaim it?
4) That being said, why can only certain races say it (such as Black ethnicities) and others cannot (any other race)? Many of my interviews for this topic who identify as Black have said “We can say it, white people cannot.”
5) What is your opinion on the Oscar nominations this year? Many have called it the racist Oscars (all nominees are white for the most part) for the opportunity to nominate Selma for best director, best actor and best actor was passed up, as well as, some people saying the Lego Movie was snubbed because the characters are “yellow”? Do you think we still have a far way to go in terms of acceptance of different races?
On Feb 20, 2015, at 9:53 AM, Ashani Jodha <email@example.com> wrote:
Would you be able to send me those answers today? The article is due Sunday.
On Feb 20, 2015, at 1:41 PM, Christopher Powell <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
Because the first four questions are interconnected I’m going to write one group answer for them and then treat the fifth question separately
First of all, I should check my privilege and declare that I am White (Anglo-Saxon on my father’s side and Ukrainian on my mother’s). I have not experienced racist discrimination first-hand, nor have I ever expected to. My knowledge of racism comes mainly from social and cultural research. As such, what I have to say is written from a detached, bystander perspective, which is a function of my position of privilege.
From the sociological point of view, the important thing to keep in mind about race is that it is socially constructed. The human species is genetically diverse and differences in qualities like skin tone, facial features, and so on are passed on through biological inheritance, but (1) there are no distinct and bounded genetic groups within the human population; rather genetic difference is more like a broad spectrum with continuous variation; (2) people do not have a powerful natural propensity to associate with people who are genetically similar to themselves; and (3) the social, cultural, economic, or political characteristics of groups or individuals are not caused by their distinct genetic traits.
That said, race has become a real force in people’s lived experience through the cumulative effects of centuries of racist practice. Sociologists call this “racialization”. Racialization is the process by which racial categories – which are fictive – are put into practice and shape people’s life circumstances and their identities. The concept of race as we know it was developed with the rise of modern biology in the 1700s and was used to justify colonialism, slavery, segregation, and legal discrimination against non-White peoples. To this day, individuals, groups, and entire countries face different opportunities and obstacles because of this history of racialization. Today, overt racism has become taboo, largely because of its association with the Nazi ideology and the Holocaust, but the effects of racialization take much longer to undo.
I’m not an expert on the history of the N-word, but it is common in groups of people who face oppression to adopt the labels of their oppression for their own use. When this happens, a word can have two very different meanings. In the case of the N-word, when used by White racists it is a term of abuse and dehumanization, of what sociologists call “symbolic violence”. But when used in a friendly way among Black people it can be a term of solidarity that refers to the common experience of racist oppression. In other words, it can mean, roughly, “we are Niggers together”, i.e. “we share a common oppression”. Of course Black people can also use the word in its abusive sense, and the two uses can overlap and be difficult to distinguish.
This is why the question of who can use the word is so highly charged. The word is not neutral: it is either an expression of solidarity or a term of abuse. And the meaning of a word depends on more than just the intentions of the person using it; it also depends on the context in which it used and the relationship between the speaker and the listener. So a non-Black person who uses the N-word needs to have established a relationship of solidarity with Black people, or else the meaning they convey will, by default, revert to the abusive meaning.
To try to reclaim the word is to try to deprive it of its negative meaning, or at least to make the positive meaning more predominant than the negative one. Other oppressed groups have done this with other words. For example, the word “queer” was once a term of abuse, but today has become a fairly neutral or even affirming term used by certain people to identify themselves. There is even a field of “queer studies” in academia.
A word like “nigger” is important not just because it implies abuse but because it designates a whole social identity and abuses that identity. In his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk”, African-American sociologist W.E.B. DuBois wrote that racism made it impossible to be a proud American and a proud Black person at the same time. Reclaiming a word like “nigger” is one of the ways of changing that situation, affirming the value of a social identity that has previously been denigrated.
About the Oscars:
Historically, very few Black artists have been nominated for or won Oscars, far fewer than the proportional size of the Black population in the United States would warrant. This is itself a form of symbolic violence, an exclusion of a part of the population from one of the most well-known and visible rituals whereby cultural products are celebrated.
It’s not clear whether that has happened because there are disproportionately few Black persons working in Hollywood, or because the Academy is unable to appreciate the cultural sensibilities of Black performers and filmmakers, or because of conscious or unconscious prejudice on the part of the members of the Academy who vote on Oscars. Probably it is some combination of all of these. But it would be difficult to show a deliberate racist intention, i.e. that the Academy’s voting members specifically intend to exclude Black people from the Academy awards. We find a similar pattern in many other settings: in schools, in policing and criminal justice, in labour markets, in political representation, and so on. Sociologists call this “institutional racism” and it’s difficult to address because its causes are complex and because it’s easy for people to deny that it exists.
We definitely still have a fair way to go to end racism. It’s not clear to me whether ending racism will mean abolishing the very concept of race, i.e. a ‘post-racial’ society, because race has by now become a form of social identity with a life of its own, even though the biological theories that gave birth to it have been discredited. But regardless, one step in the right direction would be for White people to understand that although race is a socially constructed identity, it is still a real force in society, and also to understand that racism can exist even without a specific intent on someone’s part to be racist.
I hope that the scandal around the Oscars, along with the activism that has come out of Ferguson, will help make people more aware of the lasting effects that centuries of racism have had on our social and cultural institutions.