“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.