However improbably, two of the week’s biggest stories – the self-inflicted travails of Paula Deen and the trial of George Zimmerman – are connected by a relentlessly troublesome word.
The n-word controversy has reared its ugly head yet once again. This time, there’s little denial of its corrosive impact on public discourse, or the ethical morass its very use often creates. The link between Paula Deen and the Trayvon Martin saga may in fact be a watershed moment for public discourse, one that heralds the obvious: that the long-waged battle over one of the most provocative words in the English language may in fact be hopelessly lost.
Not unlike attempting to nail Jell-O to a wall, attempting to sanction who’s permitted to use the word– and who isn’t — has become an exercise in utter futility. Worse still, it epitomizes the absurdity of trying to enforce the multiplicity of standards governing its use in public discourse.
No black friends to back her up
Ms. Deen, a product of the South with a broad cross-section of support among all races and ethnicities, has found herself ensnared in the web of hypocrisy that surrounds the n-word. Ms. Deen’s unapologetic admission of having used the word in private is complicated by allegations that she once mulled over a “plantation-style” wedding featuring black servants.
In fact, her biggest problem appears that she lacked the necessary choir of black defenders with enough street cred to ride to her rescue and vouch for her inclusive bonafides. (Unlike Gwyneth Paltrow and Quentin Tarantino, but more on that in a moment.)
Context, as well as and a bit of spelling legerdemain, is critical to understanding how the n-word’s shifting standards apply.
“Ni**er” is clearly a slur, but if you’re black you can use it with impunity. That, however, differs from “ni**a,” which can be employed interchangeably with the terms “brother,” “homie’” or pal — again, in most cases, only if you’re black.
Yet the more the figurative layers of the rhetorical onion get peeled back, the more confusing and absurd it gets. Your ability to use any variant of the n-word is wholly contingent upon your relationship with the person at whom it is directed, how and when you use it, which version you use, your age, social status, political orientation and — it goes without saying — ethnicity.
Under this standard, to the extent it can even be called that, Paltrow and Tarantino get a pass for using the word in the vernacular (in such cases, it helps to have cool black A-list friends to rise to your defense), and the popular rapper Eminem can kinda-sorta get away with using a less virulent strain of the word.
In these instances, the offender in question scores a “Get Out of Racist Purgatory for Free” card.
Still, by the same rules, Ms. Deen and Texas governor Rick Perry become the target of ginned-up outrage, Perry for having a variant of the n-word emblazoned on a rock on his family property.
Hypocrisy and double standards
Naturally, all of this creates vertigo-inducing confusion, and underscores how the n-word’s situational ethics is collapsing under the weight of its own absurdity.
For example, Rachel Jeantel, a friend of deceased Trayvon Martin and a key witness in the Zimmerman trial, flummoxed the courtroom by using “ni**a” on the witness stand, the iteration used by most rappers, black folks around the country on a daily basis, and apparently, Trayvon himself.
Yet the star witness in one of the country’s most high-profile trials seems utterly bereft of common sense, and ignorant beyond comprehension, in using the word in so cavalier a fashion.
Inadvertently, she also put on display what really lies at the heart of the Paula Deen controversy. The domestic diva’s emotional interview on The Today Show, in which she adamantly insisted she was not a racist while declaring in semi-comic fashion that “I is what I is,” did little to dispel the groundswell of fury — or stem a flood of defections among her business partners.
She also learned a painful lesson: sometimes, being a Democrat and an enthusiastic Obama supporter isn’t a guarantee of inoculating oneself against charges of racism.
For her part, Deen is learning a tough lesson in how free speech has become riddled with all sorts of hypocrisy and double standards.
Like it or not, the n-word has gone mainstream. Accordingly, it’s all but impossible to set a uniform standard on how and when it used, if at all. Not least of which because black folks so frequently direct the n-word at one another.
Thanks to those who employ the word regularly, or seem to show no compunction about other blacks using it, the term is now inextricably tied to black culture.
For all the hip-hop artists and ordinary citizens who ignored the warnings of what the n-word’s use would mean – take a bow. In large measure, society is now reaping the whirlwind they created.
We now live in a world where no single rule applies to who can use the word and when.
With the lines blurred to the point of non-existence, who can really keep up with this pointless debate?