“No, You Can’t Have Back In”

Sociologist Michael Eric Dyson recently talked on the MHP show about the desire that white people have for saying the n-word.
(You can also read his comments here.)

“Look, y’all invented the n-word. We didn’t invent it. We just co-opted it. We hijacked it. We did a carjacking on that word a few decades ago, and now you’re mad because we’ve made more sexy use of it—some denigration as well. And now you want back in? No, you can’t have back in.

“I refuse to infantlize white people. He [Time Allen] says it’s confusing to me. It ain’t confusing! Here’s a general rule of thumb to follow when using the n-word for white people. Never. When you do that, then you understand you can’t do it.”

And finally what’s interesting here is that using this kind of word—as Chris Rock said, white people control the whole world but they feel if they can’t use the n-word, somehow their power has been removed? No! Grow up, allow us to determine what is in and out. As a result of that, be our ally and challenge white people not to use it at home. You’re already using it. You just want to use it in public.”

-Michael Eric Dyson

Some thoughts on how this relates to allyship (especially for white folks) after the jump.

What stuck out to me is the line, “And now you want back in? No, you can’t have back in.”  It highlights the kind of privilege that allies have to constantly undermine within themselves: the visceral feeling of entitlement–entitlement to every space, to every conversation, and to every word. (MHP talks about this in the same clip.)  White people want to say the n-word.  Men want a say on women’s reproductive choices.  Straight people want to define what marriage and romantic love mean.  Cis people want the final say on the existence and content of womanhood and manhood.  The able-bodied want to be the ones to set the boundaries for what makes a life worth living.

Part of the reason for this entitlement, I think, is that we deeply associate lack of entitlement with lack of worth.  We rightly observe that we value privilege and don’t value those without it.  Therefore, we associate having our privilege taken away with having our worth taken away.  We get offended when other people get offended by our exercise of privilege because their offense suggests we should not have such privilege.  By the logic of oppression, it’s reasonable to get upset when someone suggests you are worth less than your current value–because we think we deserve our current valuation.  The ‘offense’ done to us (poor privileged folks) is exacerbated because it’s hard for us to emotionally distinguish between being worth less and being worthless.  So having someone call out that we are worth less than what our current (over-valued) position of privilege implies (e.g. having it be okay for us to publicly use slurs) reads to us as being a denial of our basic worth (e.g. you are not allowed ‘free’ access to language.)  We then get all melodramatic and think our silence (on this one thing) is one step away from our non-existence (on everything).

It would be nice to think that by virtue of just being a person, I should have free reign to openly discuss anything, anywhere, anytime with my fellow humans.  But when there is a current and historical context of words connected to violence and whole groups of people being unfairly silenced, there is a moral imperative for us to acknowledge that we do not live in such a utopia.  We don’t live in a world where words can’t really hurt anyone (unless you’re ‘overly sensitive’) and everything would be butterflies and rainbows if we all just spoke our minds and said whatever we feel like, whenever we feel like it, in the laissez-faire marketplace of ideas.   This world we inhabit is neither our oyster nor our universal seminar room.  It is not a learning experience made just for us.  It is not our personal Eden.  There are other people here with just as much a claim to everything as we have.  Thus, having goodwill towards others is not sufficient for being a good person. We can have the best of intentions and still do shitty, nasty, careless, callous things.  So sometimes, when we are steeped in privilege (whether temporary or permanent), the best thing for us to do is to shut up.

As Rinku Sen said (also on MHP):

“The job of a good ally is not to save anybody but rather to help create the conditions under which people can assert and grow their own power.”

To an extent, it’s psychologically reasonable to want back in, but if we care about ethics then we can’t have back in.  Us having back in would be bad.  For us white folks, the n-word is not our word to reclaim, no matter how much we want to help.  We don’t get to be part of the committee that decides when and how it loses its power; and we don’t have the authority to decide whether we should be on that committee.  Us having good intentions and some thoughts in our head is not sufficient merit.  (To quote Isaac Asimov, my ignorance is not just as good as your knowledge.)

Us white folks should keep in mind though, we are still valuable people worthy of love and respect…even if we don’t have free reign over the whole earth and control every single goddamn conversation.

11 thoughts on ““No, You Can’t Have Back In”

  1. I agree that Tim Allen’s remark was too simplistic. It would be nice if things were as simple as he thinks they are, but that’s not a good reason to pretend they are.

    But I’m not sure I get the objection, exactly. Does Tim Allen really want to control a conversation? Does he really want to tell Elon James White what he can say? (That’s what White accused him of.) Maybe he just thinks the world would be better if everyone used the n-word without stigma, and he thinks (mistakenly, I agree) that if he and others like-minded just go ahead and use it, that will change how the word works.

  2. I think the objection is that, by Allen saying that he should be able to use the word when he has no malicious intent, he is telling (people like) White what he should and should not be offended by, or find disrespectful. In that sense, Allen wants control of what people can legitimately complain about in regard to uses of the word.

  3. Yeah, that’s a good point, Stacey Goguen.

    I don’t think Allen meant it that way, but I can understand better how it must have come off to White.

  4. Though it’s less about White’s hermeneutical tendencies and more about his grasp of logic.

    If Allen’s argument is that he should have a say in when the word is acceptable, that entails he also has say in whether people’s complaints about the word are always legitimate. White reasonably takes umbrage at the notion that a white dude thinks he should get a say in the conditions under which Black folks can legitimately complain about a slur that targets their identity and the communities attached to that identity.

    Allen might not have realized that he was implying this, but he was. His intent isn’t really so relevant; the thing that deserves out attention is not so much the state of Allen’s character but rather the consequences of his actions–i.e. the impact of his words.

  5. I guess I just disagree about what logic entails. I don’t think the conclusion (that Allen should have a say in the conditions under which Black folks can legitimately complain about a slur) follows deductively from what Allen said. Nor does it follow from what Allen said that white people should have control over every conversation. So hermeneutics are required after all.

  6. Allen says (paraphrase), ‘The “n-word” is worse for me than the actual slur.”
    –He thinks he knows something about what makes this slur worse than other words–I take in, in terms of the harm it causes.

    He says (paraphrase), “If I have no racist intent, how is n—– coming out f my mouth a bad thing?”
    –This is a rhetorical question, since he has already stipulated he knows about how bad the word is compared to “the n-word.” (If it’s an actual question, he shouldn’t be asking a basic question about a word and claiming that he knows how comedians should deal with the word in order for us all to move forward in taking its current power away from it.)

    So, he thinks he knows something about what makes this word harmful. And I take it, we are working with the premise that someone’s complaint about the use of a slur is only legitimate if that slur is being harmful. If the use of a word does no harm, then there is no reason to complain about it. Ergo, Allen thinks he has a say in whether people’s complaints about the slur are legitimate or not.

    (The point about white people wanting to control every conversation is not an entailment of Allen’s words. It’s an observation about the patterns of white supremacy and colonialism in our societies. Allen’s words feed into those patterns, though.)

  7. SG, while I agree that Allen shouldn’t have said it, and that the reason is that saying it causes harm, I think part of Allen’s complaint goes to the nature of slurs in general.

    The harmfulness of a slur is not solely derived from intent. But it does seem to be context dependent. In fact, in this case it was recognition of Allen’s whiteness that made his utterance harmful (or, more harmful). If “said by a white guy” is part of what determines its harmfulness, why not “said by Tim Allen”?

    I’m sure most here have had utterances directed our way by friends that would have counted as insults had they been uttered by strangers. Who says it matters, and part this goes to their intent. We have certain charitable assumptions about what our friends are doing (not trying to demean us, etc.). I take it that this is what Alllen is after. He thinks he’s not being treated charitably in this matter.

    Why he’d think everyone who encountered his utterance would be in a position to be thusly charitable is anyone’s guess. Perhaps because of his status as a comedian. It might well be the case that the racial atmosphere in the US is so poisonous that no black person could be thusly charitable to a white person, at least concerning use of the n-word.

    These cases remind me of the “niggardly” fuss in St. Louis a few years back. A spokesperson was fired for using the word in a press conference on the budget, even though the word has no ties to the n-word, either in contemporary meaning or etymologically. I wasn’t opposed to the firing, as I would think a good spokesperson should have foreseen the firestorm that followed, and chosen her words more carefully. However, I also think those leading the “offended” brigade bore some responsibility for not enquiring enough into the context – context that ultimately takes intent as a factor.

    The point is that simply pointing to the harm caused seems too easy.

  8. Hi Stacey Goguen,
    I think “worse for me” deliberately and pretty clearly indicates that he’s talking about his own subjective reaction, not about the harm it causes.
    I agree that the rhetorical question indicates a level of cluelessness, and that he should be more aware of his own ignorance (and more modest, therefore, in his claims, even rhetorical ones).

    I think I agree with ajkreider, though there are some implications that I’m not sure I grasp. What’s wrong with slur words, on the face of things, is the offense they cause; but it’s a strange situation because most people presumably think that slurs produce *justifiable* offense. (Well, anyway, I do; I’m really just assuming many people are like me in this respect.)

    Historically, some slur words have been almost entirely co-opted and lost their bite in most ordinary situations. I believe ‘queer’ is like that; it’s certainly possible to use it in an offensive way, but it is plainly off the ‘taboo’ list too. (I would very much appreciate being corrected if I’m wrong about this case.) How exactly this happens is beyond me, to say the least. I read Allen as expressing the opinion (with which I do not agree) that the bite of slurs can be removed just by frequent use by people who also make it clear that they do not share the bigoted presuppositions of the word in question. Too bad it doesn’t work that way.

  9. That wouldn’t make much sense if Allen’s talking about his own subjective reaction. Would it be his subjective reaction to someone using that word to refer to him? Or his reaction to someone using that word to refer to someone else? Neither of those are really relevant to the issue of whether it’s benign for comedians to use racially-charged slurs. Is it his subjective reaction to the word in general? If so, is he just being a self-centered ass and thinks it’s relevant what he personally feels when he hears those words? His emotional response to an insult that doesn’t target his identity is completely irrelevant. It would be much more logically consistent with everything else he says if “worse to him” means worse in overall effect, not worse in emotional response for him, a white dude.

    Also, I don’t think the main harm of slurs is necessarily the offense they cause. I would venture that for some it’s the part they play in a larger system of racism that is fueled in part by an atmosphere of disrespect and disregard for some groups of people. Offense would be the second-most important harm they cause. I mean, there’s the emotional pain that a slur can cause in the moment. But there’s also the general atmosphere of disrespect, de-valuation, and insult-to-injury that they can contribute to. I don’t think I’m articulating this point so well, but I’ve heard people more qualified to speak on this than I say about slurs, especially the n-word, that it’s not so much that people “feel” offended. It’s not primarily about the emotional pain the word causes. Rather, it’s more about what that word signifies and what it is contributing to.

    grasping at analogies time: Most of us recognize that abuse as a pattern of behavior is a much greater and different kind of harm than someone being mean to you once. For some people, someone calling you stupid may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things. But even a friend joking to you that you are stupid when you have experienced emotional abuse has a totally different context and possible overall effect. Racism has that same sort of structure–I take it. It’s not primarily about the moment, though there is a harm in the moment, too. But there’s also this bigger habit that this one moment is echoing. So again, thinking about whether it’s ever okay to call your friend stupid, without primarily framing that issue within the context of, “oh ya and this friend has been, and still is, experiencing emotional abuse” is off the mark to the point of being callous or harmfully oblivious. In the same way, framing the issue as “the harm of slurs” is not as remotely relevant as “the harm of slurs that are connected to racism.” This is also why, even though some words (e.g. “cracker”) might technically be slurs, the harm of saying a word like that is a different ballgame than the harm of saying the n-word.
    (I should go find someone who’s made this sort of argument with probably much more nuance.)

    Lastly, Elon James White just put up an article about Allen’s remarks: http://thegrio.com/2013/07/29/tim-allens-n-word-explanation-is-so-wrong-its-funny/

    A quote from his piece:

    “Racism doesn’t come with a barcode scanner that checks each person for their actual feelings when they use problematic language. Another thing that perhaps Allen didn’t know: you can participate in racism without taking on the mantle of “racist.” Racism doesn’t come in only one flavor. Poorly executed but well-meaning acts can still add to the problem.”

  10. Hm, well, again, I don’t agree with you about logical consistency. It seems pretty clear that “for me” indicates that he’s talking about his subjective reaction. What do you think those words mean, if not that? You didn’t say.
    I don’t know why he says it, because there isn’t any context given in the interview article. He seems to be saying that using the euphemism is also offensive, and that he finds it more offensive than the slur itself. (Lots of people are infuriated by euphemisms.)

    I take your point about offense not being the primary harm. I might add that I think there is something wrong with using slurs even when they cause no harm at all.

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