Whether Paula Deen truly only said the word “nigger” once in her entire 66 years– an idea I find impossible to believe –or if she says it every day 50 times while she’s brushing her teeth, her supporters are missing the point. Were it not for the allegations of bigotry and unfair treatment of black employees, none of us would be giving Deen’s use of the word a second thought because we wouldn’t know about it.
Here are some of the retorts offered on blog posts to readers and writers who believe Paula Deen deserves to be pilloried in the media the way she is.
• She only said the n-word once, for God’s sake. She said she’s sorry. What more do you want?
• Are you so perfect that you can say you have never said anything about another person you wish you could take back?
• Black rappers keep using the word in their song lyrics. Black people continue to call each other “niggers” in their everyday lives. How can it be ok for them to use it, but such a crime for whites to use it?
Let’s talk about the S-word for a minute. When did we all decide that no matter what a person does to harm another’s body or psyche, all is forgiven when they say, “I’m sorry?” I see young parents out and about with their children. One brother hauls off and clocks his little brother upside his head. Mom or Dad sees what happens, grabs the older child and immediately orders him to tell his brother he’s sorry. So he does.
Is big brother really sorry for slugging the annoying little imp? Not one bit. If he is sorry for anything, it is for being put into “time out” or losing his TV viewing privileges.
As the character Jo in the movie For Colored Girls said, “Save your “sorry.” One thing I don’t need is anymore apologies. I got sorry greeting me at the front door. You can keep yours. I don’t know what to do with them… I can’t even… I have to throw some away. I can’t even get to the clothes in my closet for all the sorries. I’m not even sorry about you being sorry. “
IF – and please note that I do say if – IF Paula Deen talked with her staff about coordinating an event with an Old South plantation theme, replete with black men and women in white coats and bow ties playing the role of slaves, there is something off about Paula’s sensibilities. If Deen treated her black employees in any way differently than her white employees, as has been alleged, there is room to wonder where her head is on the matter of race in 2013.
Now, back to the word in question.
BUT BLACK PEOPLE SAY IT ALL THE TIME
There should be no confusion whatsoever on the parts of white people about the use of the word “nigger.” The word was born out of a slave culture and used to dehumanize the black slave in order to justify their relegation to the level of chattel. The word was created and continues to be used in order to nullify the worth as a human being of black people. Any time that word comes out of the mouth of a white person, whether it be in a joke, in an attempt to “get down with the brothers” or in a conversation among other white people, the effect of that word on the ears of a black person is “s/he has just tried to nullify my being.”
I’m sure many have said to themselves about Paula Deen’s admitted, one-time use of the word, “If ever there was a time for that word to be used, it was when a black man had a gun to her head.” Really? She described him to the police as a nigger. She didn’t call him a robber, or a thief or a criminal or any of the other things he most certainly was. No, she called him what in her mind was the absolute worst thing she could have called him. There is no circumstance under the sun that can justify the use of the word “nigger” by a white person, unless that person is determined to stake his or her claim to a membership in a club for bigots.
I am a woman in her late 60s. I fought like crazy for civil rights along with the rest of the white and black people of the time who were tired of Jim Crow and separate facilities. I hate the word “nigger.” Even as I type it, I feel the effects on my physical self. I wish the word were declared illegal and no one could say it without facing a fine or jail time. That’s how much I object to the use of this word by ANYONE – and that includes black people.
I remember the first time the word was ever used in my presence. I had made it all the way to college without ever being called a nigger to my face. I was sitting in the dorm on the floor with a circle of my friends. This was a time when everybody tried to look “cool” by taking up smoking. Problem was, some of us were incapable of financially supporting our habit, so often a cigarette would be passed around to share.
The girl who was to become the president of the sorority I ultimately joined blurted out:
“Ewwwwww. You nigger-lipped this cigarette.”
She wasn’t talking to me, but to another girl in the circle who was white. Actually, everybody but me was white. It took me a few beats to get my bearings. I had never heard this terminology, so I wondered if I had misheard her. I asked her what she said.
“Kathy nigger-lipped the filter on the cigarette. It’s all wet!”
I stomped out of the room. Everybody else sat silent, looking confused. Not even the girl who said it could figure out why I was so upset. They were all clueless about not only the meaning of the term, but also about the negative power of that word.
I schooled them. Big time.
I am not surprised that some white people still do not fully grasp the nastiness of that word, which they actually believe can be used by them in a non-mean way. Had I not calmed myself down and realized that these girls needed something more than the sight of my indignant butt leaving the room, they might have continued to say things like “nigger-lip.”
And yes, some black people do say it all the time. It’s been like that ever since I can remember. Even in my multi-cultural family, it was common to hear remarks like “stop acting like a nigger,” or “a nigger ain’t shit.” When used in that way, it carried the same nullifying power as it does when used by a white person. Over the generations, black people had internalized the disdain for their very being, I think, so they judged the behavior of other black people who behaved in ways that reminded them of their alleged inferiority.
A second way it was used was as an intra-group term of endearment. E.g., “You are my nigger” meant “I am your friend.” I remember a stepfather who had spent years in a segregated U.S. Air Force coming home with a saying:
“You are my nigger if you don’t get no bigger. But if you do get bigger, you’ll just be my bigger nigger.”
Again, as obtuse as it may seem to white people, the word had an entirely different meaning than it did when uttered by a white person.
NIGGA AND NIGGER ARE NOT EQUIVALENT
According to my son who grew up in the advent of rap and hip-hop, the black artists of the 80s and 90s consciously commandeered the word. They purposefully took the word away from its original, nullifying meaning, changed the spelling to “Nigga” and changed the meaning to be synonymous with “person.” At the time, they didn’t anticipate their music and lyrics actually appealing to white, suburban teens who would immediately start throwing the word “nigga” around as if they were supposed to. The old school rappers don’t much like that and they will correct that behavior if it is done in their presence. The word belongs to black people, my son says, to do with whatever they want. It is still off-limits to white people, because the meaning changes on their tongues.
If a contemporary black person uses the actual word “Nigger” instead of the newly spelled “nigga,” the meaning is absolutely the same as it has always been and is meant to nullify that person’s being.
Paula Deen is not in trouble for “being big enough to admit” she has used the word. Deen is in trouble for not damning the word and herself for ever using it the minute that lawsuit deposition of hers was leaked. She is in trouble for possibly condoning abominable behavior on her brother’s part. She is in trouble for saying that she can’t determine what words and behaviors offend people. She is in trouble because she thinks the word “nigger” can be used in a non-mean way.
Lezlie Bishop is a multi-racial black woman who grew up in a segregated suburb of Chicago in the 40s, 50s and 60s. She writes on her blogs about current events, politics and lifestyles, as well as her own memoir pieces. She writes on Our Salon and Open Salon as L in the Southeast.