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Archive for Friday, March 16, 2001

N-word is never acceptable

March 16, 2001

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If you missed the semi-flap over Sen. Robert Byrd's use of the N-word a week ago because you were actually having a life, welcome to the club. More people probably read about Byrd's reference to "white niggers" than actually heard him say it not once, but twice on Fox News Sunday. So it goes.

I say blame the whole thing on Chris Rock, Jay-Z and the hip-hop generation. And on Rupert Murdoch. They all want an audience.

Rock, the popular comic who follows in the footsteps of Richard Pryor, has made the N-word a part of his shtick. To him, using the word is a way of demonstrating that it can't be used to hurt him. Pryor thought that, too, a couple of decades ago. But he went to Africa in the 1980s and came back a changed man. No "niggers" here, he said.

It's a good thing, too, because I lost the ability to laugh about being called the N-word long ago. In my hometown of Conyers, Ga., a clown hired to entertain kids white kids, I now know branded me, the black girl in the bunch, just that. From that point on, I've been forever on guard.

But I'm not much moved by the indignation of Murdoch's media organs, including Fox News Channel and the New York Post, over Byrd's comment. It's just a way to attract viewers and readers. And to signal that Democrats and liberals aren't always consistent in their expressions of outrage. Big news that is!

Murdoch's media minions say that Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, is being given a free pass by those in the media who haven't gone ballistic about what he said. They overlook the fact that most of us never watch Fox or read the Post and, thus, are catching up to the supposed insult.

Now, in the '60s, there were what were known as white Negros, liberals who liked blacks; they're called wiggers in some places nowadays.

To Rock and other humorists and actors and musicians of his generation, the N-word is merely a term of endearment. A black comedian, Herman Hurston, has a routine that goes: "Don't get offended by that word 'nigger.' 'Nigger' now is a noun, so use it if you feel like it. 'Nigger' is a person, place or thing. Like I can look at you and say, 'What's up, nigger?' That's a person. OK. I went over to that nigger's house. That's a place. He one dumb-a-- nigger. That's a thing."

Well, this ain't funny. It's confusing to most people. It's disgusting to folks like me.

The N-word, as the 83-year-old senator from West Virginia unintentionally confirmed, is a pejorative term. One does not usually use that word unless one is trying to insult, condemn, confine to a particular place in the social strata.

After offering his view that race relations are on the upswing, Byrd prattled on beyond what was wise as politicians too often do and said there are bad apples among every race.

"My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that," Byrd recounted. "There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time I'm going to use that word. We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much."

Before the interview even aired, he issued an apology for his comments.

Many years ago, when I was a law student working in Georgia on a murder case, I came across an older white man who wanted to help me and my team as we tried to figure out which of the potential jurors might be vulnerable on a charge of racism. As we talked, he recounted when he saw the light in terms of race.

He was a kid and, one day, repeating a word he'd heard others use, called one of his black playmates "nigger." His mother overheard him, summoned him back to the house, boxed his ears, washed his mouth out with soap and told him to never use that word again. The proper term, she told him, was "nig-rah."

Because he meant it in good faith all that many years later it was 1977 I took it that way. And he was all right by me.

But Byrd is of a generation. And we've long known of his past as a Klansman. The KKK past and present doesn't frighten me. What does is our attention deficit disorder, a malady that prevents us from realizing that using the N-word isn't right now or tomorrow. Whether uttered by a doddering old man or young pups like Rock.

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