Monday, October 22, 2012

The N Word (A Dissection in Recent Popular Culture)

After a long hard day at work, what's a better way to unwind then discuss one of the most polarizing words in vocabulary today, the N word.  For all intents and purposes I will not be saying the word outright.

Over this past weekend Actor/Comedienne Chevy Chase was reported as saying the N word while on the set of the television series Community.  At first there was not much information or background on the story, but today new details came to light, but first a little bit of background on his character.  Chase plays Pierce Hawthrone a wealthy old man, and heir to a moist toilet fortune.  Pierce's character is always portrayed a bigoted old white man.  One example of the quotes he has said from an episode is the following "Oh, please. If all Chinese were psychic, they'd have invented birth control years ago."

While that quote is on the tamer side, Pierce often represents the out of touch, and is seen as type villain on the show.  Pierce's father is actually worse, but that's neither here nor there.  Going back to the Chevy's remarks, while shooting on the set he broke out in a rage saying something along the effects of what are you going to do next on the show, have my character say the N word, but he said the word.  After saying the word Chevy apologized to the cast and crew specifically Donald Glover and Yvette Nicole Brown, they play Troy and Shirley on the show.

The View's Whoopi Goldberg lead a discussion speaking about this word, and the panelist had some interesting musings.  Before you complain about me using The View as an example, this is one of the few places where black women get to speak their mind.  Whoopi took the perspective that she uses the word in order to not let the word lose its stigma, because no matter what the word still has a past, and if the word gets watered down so much those with hatred can take advantage of it.  Meanwhile co-host Barbara Walters asked the most interesting question(s) when can it be used? Who can use it, or is the ever time it can be used and not critiqued?

There is no simple answer to any of her questions, and the complex one could fill up books.  Looking at this from a popular culture lens has merits, because the way musicians, actors, and other auteur's use this word has an impact on society.

One recent example I would like to use is the track from Jay-Z and Kanye West's album Watch the Throne entitled "Ni**as in Paris."  In the article "The N-Word and how we Talk About Hip Hop" Nicole Holliday points an interesting yet superficial argument.  What do you do while you karaoke and that word is in your song, do you sing it, do you mumble over it?  How do you handle that, and does your race matter when you do?

Going back to the track from Jay-Z and Kanye, Gweneth Paltrow got a lot of flack for tweeting "Ni**as in Paris for real."  Paltrow's tweet made national headlines and she received a lot of flack for using the word in her tweet.  Paltrow's defense was ultimately that she was saying the title of the song, not defaming anyone, or using the words against people.  Holliday and the folks from The Word, and online journal for African American English have dissected the actual N-Word a lot lately, and ask is Gweneth wrong?

Throughout the different articles Holliday points out that the same two questions come up "Who has the license to use the word?" and "In what context is the word not offensive?"  Whoopi posed the following question "I would ask Gwyneth this. I don’t know that there’s ever a time that a white person can say that and not get a backlash for using it."  Then in today's episode she stated the that she was not sure that anyone, even a black person could escape the backlash of the N-word.

Both points of view have polar opposite thoughts on use of the N-word making the discussion on of the most complex for the ages.  Different people have different perspectives on this word, and who can use it and in what context.  There are people who believe the word can only be used by black people.  People who use the word because the feel as though watering down words gives those the power to make it something negative or too common place.

Let's go back to Chevy's outburst, was he wrong for using the word out of anger in that context.  Chase is known to be a difficult person to work with, and prior to hearing "the story" of what happened anger filled my blood.  Then when I heard why he used it and knowing the context of the direction of his character on the show, I am not surprised that he expressed anger and hatred in that manner.  Does this give him a pass?  Chase was using an extreme to stir the pot.  This word is an extreme, and like I stated above there could be books written on this topic.  There is no solution or easy answer to this analysis, merely one that can spur discussion, and how it impacts those the word represents.

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