Can Blacks Rid Themselves of the Use of the N-Word?

August 27, 2010 at 10:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

In an attempt to dole out advice on the n-word, popular talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger slipped into a rant using it.

When a caller — a distraught African American women who called in to be advised on how to handle racist jokes and comments hurled at her by her white in-laws and neighbors — asked Schlessinger if it’s okay to use the n-word, Dr. Laura needed advice before she advised.

“It depends how it’s said. …Black guys talking to each other seem to think it’s OK,” Schlessinger told the caller.

Whether used as an expletive or term of endearment, what is it about this word that captures the rage and shame of the American public?

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com “Seinfeld” for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson’s use of the word not only reminded us of its history, but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in a mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP’s convention in Detroit in 2007.

While it is easy to get sidetracked by raising queries about the tenor and intent of the repetitive use of the n-word in the context of supposed humor as in Richard’s case, vilification as in Jackson’s or advice as in Schlessinger’s case, we must as Americans look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word, which was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans’ use of it in hip hop music, the bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it, which is why Richards and Schlessinger were publicly pulverized, and Jackson wasn’t.

But, our culture’s present-day cavalier use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as Americans — both White and Black — have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of this epithet.

Many African Americans — not just the hip hop generation — state that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

African Americans’ appropriation of the n-word as insiders neither obliterates the historical baggage with which the word is fraught nor obliterates its concomitant social relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. Just because some African Americans use the term does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “er” ending and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s many African Americans use the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

Why? Because language is a representation of culture.

Language re-inscribes and perpetuates the ideas and assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

Many activists argue that Richards’ repentance at the time should be volunteer work in a predominately African American community anywhere in the county. However, he would find there too that many of us keep the n-word alive.

But what would work for us all is a history lesson, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing racial relations among us. Instead, it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

A conversation on “acting white…”

August 13, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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(Originally streamed July 22, 2010)  After the television broadcasts the panelists on Basic Black (produced by WGBH public broadcasting in Boston) delved into a discussion of the notion of “acting white”.  Our panel:  Phillip Martin, senior investigative reporter, WGBH Radio; Latoyia Edwards, anchor, New England Cable News; Davarian Baldwin, professor of American Studies, Trinity College.

(Click on the image to view video.)

“Essence” Magazine’s True Color

August 6, 2010 at 9:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments
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Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

There has been a color change at “Essence.” After forty years of having sisters from the African Diaspora as its fashion director, the new one is white. And the news is sending seismic shock waves to many of its subscribers here in the U.S. and across the globe.

New fashion director Ellana Placas, however, is no novice to dressing black women or to the cultural demands of black women’s fashion taste. Prior to her six months at “Essence” as a freelancer, Placas worked at two popular ‘zines — O: The Oprah Magazine and US Weekly, both of which are crossover successes.

Placas will make her official debut with “Essence” this September, commemorating the magazine’s 40th anniversary.

But in this post-racial era where the rigid reigns of race are supposed to be loosening up, should there be outrage in the selection of Ellana Placas as the magazine’s new fashion director?

“Essence,” like many fashion magazines, has a niche audience. And it’s a magazine with an impressive circulation of roughly over 1 million sister-readers monthly between the ages of 18 and 49. Some of the ire towards the hiring of Placas is the concern that she will “whiten” “Essence” up, thus destroying the inimitable girlfriend-to-girlfriend style, complexion, and tone of the magazine.

But if truth were told, the elephant in the fashion department of “Essence” is that the magazine “already takes its cues from non-African-Americans. Most of the stores, designers, TV fashion experts, and stylists that set trends that end up being attributed to African-American celebrities are not African-American,” wrote. “Case in point: Rihanna, considered by many to be black music’s preeminent fashion trendsetter, is styled by someone who is not black. Rihanna shares her stylist with the Smiths; Will, Jaden, Willow, and Jada use her as well.”

While the magazine purports to be for today’s black women, not every sister sees a glimpse of her countenance in its pages. Long before Placas walked into “Essence’s” fashion department, the magazine had always showcased a Caucasian-like beauty aesthetic of light-skinned sisters with processed hair on most of its covers, even during our cultural “black is beautiful” era.

Lesbian, bisexual, and trans sisters for the most part are invisible to the magazine. While LBT sisters have been reading “Essence” since its inception in May 1970, we got a glimpse of our reality in the May 1991 Mother’s Day issue when Linda Villarosa, then senior editor at magazine, co-wrote an article with her mother entitled “Coming Out.”

While Villarosa’s “Coming Out” piece signaled to the magazine that lesbians, bisexual, and transwomen are part of the “Essence” sisterhood, too, the piece wasn’t a breakthrough moment for more stories, photos, and articles about us.

Occasionally, however, we have a token moment. Case in point: This year the magazine for the first time featured “one” of us as same-sex couple.

“I am working on a relationship story for “Essence” magazine. The piece will highlight several couples and their keys to a successful relationship. I would like to include a Black lesbian couple in my piece. Would you or anyone you know be interested in speaking with me?” freelancer Niema Jordan wrote me in October 2009.

The shock wave about “Essence” for me is the paucity of out lesbians, bisexual, and transwomen featured and working at the ‘zine coupled with the fact that the lack of African American women and men throughout the ranks of the fashion industry is of serious concern. So, I thought the brouhaha about the new selection of “Essence’s” fashion designer was that it’s editor-in-chief, Angela Burt-Murray, finally hired a gay male or black lesbian. (And yes, that’s right. Many of us sister-lesbians do have style. Dr. Marjorie J. Hill, the Chief Executive Officer of Gay Men’s Health Crisis of NYC and my former mayor of Cambridge, E. Denise Simmons, are just a few of the classic examples.)

After Viacom’s acquisition of Black Entertainment Television (BET), Placas’ hiring at “Essence,” no doubt, raises grave concern about another Black business takeover now from both inside and out the company. In 2000 Time Warner purchased 49 percent of Essence Communications Partners, and in 2005, Time Warner purchased the remaining 51 percent.

In mainstream fashion magazines white women and gay white men dominate the industry ignoring the plethora of black talent and creativity.

But let’s not confuse a Caucasian-like beauty and heterosexist aesthetic that has dominated Essence’s fashion department since its inception from white business conglomerates vying to take it over.

Some are saying with Placas’ hiring “Essence” is now showing its true color.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

President Obama Hosts Emerging Leaders of Africa

August 4, 2010 at 10:10 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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President Obama hosted a town hall of emerging African leaders on August 3, 2010.  Over 45 nations were represented.  2010 also marks the 50th anniversary year of independence for many countries on the African continent.

According to the White House, the schedule for the summit is as follows:

DAY 1: The President’s Forum with Young African Leaders opens in Washington, DC at the State Department where participants will attend a number of small discussion sessions to explore topics including transparency and accountability, job creation and entrepreneurship, rights advocacy, and the use of technology to empower individuals and communities. President Obama will then welcome the delegates and host a town-hall at the White House.

DAY 2: Participants meet with leaders of Congress on Capitol Hill, participate in leadership and empowerment discussions with Peace Corps, and share in service experiences across Washington, DC.

DAY 3: Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale and Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs  Maria Otero co-host “The Way Forward Plenary” at the Newseum where delegates will share their ideas from the forum. Participants will also have an opportunity to network with American civil society leaders and resource organizations at an “unconference” following the plenary. The Forum will close with a featured speaker.

Each night, participants will have the opportunity for peer to peer exchange at partner events hosted by the Aspen Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, McKinsey, and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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