Monday, February 19, 2007

An epistle on epithets part 1

I’ve been reading Covering by Kenji Yoshino – well I actually bought it awhile ago but got sidetracked – and I’ve been thinking about the problems some celebrities have had with epithets. Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, Isaiah Washington and most recently Tim Hardaway have run into some difficulties for using slurs. The religious, racial and sexual derogatory terms that were used by Gibson, Richards, and Washington / Hardaway respectively have force mainly in how they differentiate the target from the “norm.”

This categorization and classification as being different grants the more “normal” or “ideal” among us power – to greatly summarize Foucault – in the form of the gaze. The epithet is in a way the verbal expression of the gaze; it allows one to point to those who have not successfully assimilated themselves as being freaks outside of normal human discourse. It is a means to objectify the targets of the gaze and the epithets subjugating humanity and reducing them merely to the epithetic difference.

I’ve been the target of all three of the types of epithets that the above-mentioned celebrities espoused as have several others. The most recent controversy over “Grey’s Anatomy” star Isiah Washington’s use of the “F word” struck a nerve because so many people trotted out the same old tropes. First some people I know who shall remain nameless – who know that I am gay, mind you - said that it wasn’t a big deal because he was using the word to deny using the word. T. R. Knight, the person he was ostensibly referring to with his comments stated that Washington said them in October during the big kerfuffle. The brouhaha forced Knight out of the closet. This is the “you people have always been so thin skinned.”

The other trope is the old “some of my best friends are (insert oppressed class I just insulted)” which Washington brought out when he brought up his role in Spike Lee’s “Get on the Bus” as a Gay Black Republican. While it is true he was a poster boy for Mary Cheney, PFLAG and others it doesn’t give him a free pass on the use of epithets. If it did Richards could have just pointed to Kramer having an African American attorney after his outburst.

The other trope is the old “ruler contest” that is trotted out every time you have one person from a minority insult another minority. I saw this when some people jumped to Washington’s defense saying that if he is fired it is a sure sign of racism on the part of the producers. The reasoning works like this, Blacks have suffered through slavery, segregation and are still given less pay and opportunities in professions like acting so therefore the “F word” is bad but not as bad as the “N word” so Knight and everyone else should get over it.

The last trope that I’ll bring up is the “but you say it” argument. While I’m a Black Gay Man I try to avoid using the N-word or the F-word, because they have a dark history attached to them. Other people believe that they should be reclaimed, they tend to forget that reclaiming in the modern age means commercialization. When you commercialize a word it goes beyond the confines of the group. By using the words in pop culture it implicitly gives permission to people not of the effected communities to use them. Hence, “why can 50 Cent say it and I can’t?”

While it is true that the overwhelming audience of hip-hop is suburban Caucasians, one has to wonder why so many of them have the urge to use the N-word to show that they “are down with their boys.” I’ve never felt the urge to sling a few anti-Semitic words at my Jewish friends to show my affection.

The main problem is that on the one hand people argue that these are just words and they have no real power and on the other they show the power of the words by pleading to be able to drop them casually in polite conversation. If the words are not meant in a harmful manner then why insist on using them when others say that they are harmful to them.

For those who still think that people are just blowing things out of proportion and wish to affect a more laissez faire attitude in their speech they should try a simple experiment. The experiment goes like this replace their speech with the entire hip-hop lexicon, not just spinners, n****s and f*****s but b*****s and h*s as well. Do this regardless of the audience or to whom the term applies. For example a man should refer to his girlfriend as “this is my b***h, she’s chill wit’ whatevah.” No one who had any respect for his girlfriend would say something like this. Why would it be acceptable to say we can dance like some n****s (a la Paris Hilton)?

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