Imagine that you were a victim of a brutal act of violence. You were attacked, beaten with a bat, kidnapped, and held for ransom for ten days. Over the course of your time as a captive, every time you resisted a command or tried to escape, you were struck with the same bat. It became stained with your blood, making it a lasting reminder of your suffering.
Eventually, you are rescued. Your attacker is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced. Some time late, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted your case informs you that the police have run out of storage space for evidence, and do to a budget crisis, they are unable to build or acquire more storage space. This has lead them to take the incredibly unusual step of offering to give you the bat that was used as a weapon against you. If you decline, it will be destroyed and discarded.
At this point, different people would have different responses. Some would simply allow the police to destroy the bat and symbolically destroy the brutality it represents. Others may want to destroy the bat itself. Some may choose to keep it and store it, but rarely, if ever, look at it. Another option would be to keep the bat and keep it visible, a constant reminder that your attacker no longer has the power to threaten you life. A person who chooses to do this may display the bat in her living room as a testament to others of the physical and emotional hardship she has overcome, or she may display it in a more private space, such as a bedroom, where it can remind her daily that she can be attacked, but not destroyed.
Now, imagine these two possible responses from the attacker, serving out a lengthy prison sentence:
- The attacker ask that you save the bat and keep it safe in case he wants to use it on you or someone else once he gets out of jail. He also wants the bat to be made available to anyone else who may feel the need to assault you.
- The attacker ask that you destroy the bat, arguing that if he can’t use it, no one should be able to. Either the bat is evil and dangerous, or it’s good and beneficial. Besides, by keeping the bat, you just encourage others to attack innocent people with bats.
Clearly, neither of these request should be honored. The first request is just insane. Why would the victim of a brutal attack go out of her way to be attacked again? In the second scenario, the attacker asserts a right that he does not have and uses faulty logic. Why should he get to tell his victim what she can and cannot do with the assault weapon? And how does her non-violent decision cause or justify further violence? Most logical, level-headed people would side with the victim, not the attacker, in either situation.
Except that they wouldn’t. Many people, maybe even most people, do actually side with the attacker in the second situation. Some even side with him in the first situation.
Imagine that instead of the victim being one person, it is several generations of African Americans. Imagine that instead of the assault weapon being a bat, it’s the n-word. These inappropriate, illogical responses are exactly how we deal with the n-word in our society.
Recently, a video tape emerged of members of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon singing a song that included the lyrics, “You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me, there will never be a n***** at state,” to the tune of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.”
To this, the crew at MSNBC’s Morning Joe responded with a good ol’ American “Blame Hip Hop” roundtable. Specifically, they argued that rapper Waka Flocka Flame has no right to express disgust with the video or the actions of the young men it it because of the profane content in his own songs. Actually, they questioned whether his music could even be classified as “songs” (which is either incredibly stupid, incredibly rude, or both).
Now, I’m no connoisseur of Waka, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that those young men were not singing one of his songs on the bus. I’m going to guess that Waka doesn’t use his music to endorse the idea that white people should lynch black people and block them from joining their social organizations. I’m sorry, Joe Scarborough and friends, the guys from SAE were not repeating something they heard in a rap song.
Here’s the problem: this response is not uncommon. Whenever white people get caught using the n-word, the national conversation always devolves to a point of blaming black people because they use the word. Whenever this happens, I always want to ask white people, “Wait, do you WANT to call me a n*gg*r?” This is a word that – for basically the entirety of the centuries that blacks and whites have inhabited this hemisphere – has been used as an assault weapon on the psyches of people of African dissent. That mental and emotional assault has often been used in tandem with physical action: enslavement, rape, forced breeding, whipping, lynching, mutilation, financial exploration, segregation, lynching, disenfranchisement, and forced sexual exploitation and exhibition. It amazes me that, time after time, some white people have no qualms about getting on their moral high horses and blaming African Americans every time this bone chilling verbal assault weapon is again used against us.
The n-word is the weapon that we were assaulted with. Yes, it may be true that some of us choose to do the wrong thing with it. Still, just as with the victim in the story above, it’s our prerogative to choose what we do with it. We can destroy it in an attempt to move past the pain it caused, or we can display it as a reminder that we’ve overcome that pain and have no intention of being intimidated by that weapon ever again. Since we’re a community of individuals, each of us will make a different choice of what to do with the weapon, but certainly that is our choice, not the choice of white America.
Also baffling in this whole situation is white America’s inability to take responsibility for their own actions. As he often does, John Stewart used humor to make this point in a very disarming and entertaining way:
Think about this: when unarmed African American children are killed by the police, it’s the fault of their families and the black community. When schools in predominately black communities lack the resources to excel, it’s the fault of the black community. When black communities lack clean air, access to quality food, and jobs, it’s the fault of the black community. But when white people say racist things, it’s not their fault. They didn’t say those things because they’re racist, they said them because they were drunk or because they are bad at telling jokes or BECAUSE HIP HOP.
Listen, I’m not trying to bash all white people. Because of the experiences of going to a suburban high school, attending a non-HBCU college, and working in the non-profit sector, I’ve met and befriended many white people. One of the things that I really appreciate about white people who I’m cool with is that they respect my right to respond to the racist past and present of this country in the way that I choose even if they wouldn’t respond that way themselves. They even try to understand my response because they care about me as a person. I guess I just wish that more people could do that, could be a friend, and not just a critic.