Do you remember that I…

Do you remember that I skipped over describing a WisCon panel, "Dissecting the Language of Fail," waiting for a write-up? Well, Sophy was live-blogging the panel, and she has a pretty detailed write-up of it. Thanks, Sophy! Please take a quick read, or the rest of this won't make much sense. The very short version is that I said the n-word (the actual word, not the euphemism) in the midst of a discussion of the different types of racism, and someone in the audience called me on it. I apologized. But there's a lot more to it, and I think it'd help to have the context of the overall panel, which was about how people fail on these social justice issues, and how we handle it when people tell us we've failed.

The n-word is something I'm still not sure how to deal with, honestly. Because I still haven't figured out intellectually how I want to handle that word in writing, in speech. I don't think I've ever confronted that before. When reading academic texts, sometimes it comes up, and there I'm perfectly okay with just reading it and dealing with it as a word. But I'm pretty sure I've never said it out loud before that panel, never written it down, even in a character's voice. I've avoided it, as much as I can.

And yet I find I'm also deeply resistant to circumlocutions like 'the n-word', because that feels so silly to me -- everyone knows what word I mean, right? It feels like using the euphemism adds an extra weight to the word. It's so terrible that we can even say it, we can't use it neutrally, to quote someone racist, for example, or to describe the kinds of things such people might say. (Which was how I was using it in the panel.) There's an impatient part of me that wants to just use it and be done with it. Defend it essentially on academic / language / writerly grounds. I'm a writer, and I get to use words. Real words. All the words.

And at the same time, I can't ignore the pain the n-word causes. I don't think I can really understand the potential depth of that pain, even if not every black person who hears the word spoken will experience that pain. I don't want to cause pain for no good reason. And while I will argue that sometimes there may be a good reason, that it may be necessary to override the causing of pain in order to use the word in certain situations (as in an academic book about the word), I'm not sure that I can or should use it casually.

I know that within some black communities, the n-word is used...I was going to say casually, but I'm not sure that's right. It still carries freight, just a different freight. From my outsider perspective, it seems ironic, joking, bitter, affectionate, protective -- and a lot more. That's a lot for one racial pejorative to carry. And I'm not an insider in those communities, and I don't really understand that usage fully. So I'm pretty hesitant to try using it. (As opposed to, say, 'queer' -- which I damn well will defend my right to use, as a self-descriptor, among other things.)

This is long, and muddled. As I said, I'm still trying to figure out where I stand on this. But at the time, on the panel, I was pretty clear on a few things:

  • as soon as I said the word, in the midst of a definition of racism, I winced internally, and wished I'd chosen a different phrasing -- I didn't need to actually say it to make my point; that was careless language

  • when the young black woman raised her hand and called me out on use of a racial pejorative, I agreed with her assessment, but was confused and embarrassed and defensive enough that my response was mostly incoherent (mostly, I think my brain was freaking out that 'oh-my-god-a-black woman-thinks-I'm-a-racist!!!')

  • I appreciated the panel moderator's attempt to redirect and protect me from being called out while under the spotlight, as it were -- it helps having a moment to think when you've screwed up

  • but I also thought it was really important, ESPECIALLY given the topic of the panel, and ESPECIALLY as GOH at the convention, that I take back the mic a few minutes later, when I'd had a chance to think about what I'd said, and make clear that I did think I'd messed up, and I was really sorry for it.

    As a teacher, it's my job to model what I think is good behavior, the correct approach to the problem. Even if it's hard to do. (Which is also why I'm deliberately addressing all this here, bracing for some potential criticism, instead of just sweeping it under the rug and hoping everyone forgets about it, which I was severely tempted to do.) And I do think every time you do 'fess up, it gets a little easier to do the right thing.

    It's tempting to say the language slip wasn't intentional, it wasn't really my fault -- but I think that's missing the point. It wasn't intentional, certainly -- it was a result of the cultural racism that I've inherited, along with everyone else. Along with, perhaps, a certain anxiety about talking about race that led me to overcompensate? To try to be comfortable with words that I'm just not comfortable with?

    But regardless, the words I utter are under my control. And, when I pause to think about it, I know better than to think I can just use the n-word without causing pain. Not here, not now. Maybe someday, when we are much farther away from the source of all that pain. I can hope.

13 thoughts on “Do you remember that I…”

  1. There are so many layers to this problem… I have a black friend I went to college with who made a movie, called the Prep School Negro. I know people of various ethnic backgrounds make jokes about themselves, using the derogatory language. I also know, that even at age almost 40 (eeek!) I don’t have a handle on things like this. (inadvertently used one of ‘those’ words on a message board, without realising until afterwards, when people got upset, specifically because the only context I had ever heard the word was in one of those ‘joking’ self-derogatory contexts).

    In some ways I almost wonder if by becoming so PC, and so hyphenated, we are giving these words more power. Its like the whole question of what to call someone when we were in college.. I remember having conversations where some people were comfortable with one nomenclature, and others with another, so you were supposed to ask them what they preferred. That to me still spoke of defining someone by an outward trait…

    I do think we need to have conversations about words like that, because even if they are ‘ok’ being used by the group to which they refer, but not by anyone else, that still gives them power.

    I grew up in a completely different world, though. And even now, 20-some years later, I still have cultural assimilation issues! Different words are charged differently for different people…

  2. Mary Anne wrote: I appreciated the panel moderator’s attempt to redirect and protect me from being called out while under the spotlight, as it were — it helps having a moment to think when you’ve screwed up.

    I’m glad to hear this was helpful. However, as the mod, I was concerned in the moment (and still am) that I came off as dismissive, which wasn’t my intent. I got nervous, certainly, and I wasn’t entirely sure how to handle it. I could tell that it took courage for her to stand up and speak, and I froze up a bit.

    That said, I was very very glad when you came back to the moment and addressed it as you did. I could tell that was difficult and scary, but I think it was a tremendously illustrative moment. I hope that we worked it out okay with the audience member and that they feel all right about it. (If I’d been thinking, I would have tried to touch base with her after the panel, but two panels in a row was a little nervewracking for me!)

    Thanks for this post. When I do my own write-up of the panel, I will link to this post, if that’s okay.

  3. Thank you for this post and linking to the write-up. I was struck by the point (maybe or maybe not made by you?) that admitting defensive feelings helps avoid defensive reactions–it rings true for me, and it’s such a helpful reminder.

  4. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Jess A., I do kind of agree that it may have felt a bit dismissive, but you were in a tough spot, trying to balance a variety of peoples’ needs in the moments. After the fact, it’s always easier to think of what we ‘should’ have said or done. I think you did okay in the moment, and as I said, it did help me, at least.

    I looked for her afterwards, because I did want to check in with her, but someone came up to talk to me right afterwards, and she was gone by the time I looked. I admit, I’m still a little worried about what she thought of the whole interaction — but I’d rather know the truth, even if it’s unpleasant for me. I think.

  5. Mary Anne,
    While I wasn’t at your conference and witnessed the incident, I wonder what the rest of the audience who were tuned into your presentation thought? Was there a collective gasp of horror after you said the n-word? Did everyone shift nervously in their seats and look away? I think not. While you specifically did not mention the exact sentence which you spoke, I’ll bet in context one would understand that there was no intention to be perjorative.
    I think those who would adopt an attitude of “righteous indignation” are playing on the generalization of making the term “racist” applicable to anyone to whom they would care to take affront.
    Therefore I find it ironic that a black (however black must one be to qualify) person called you, a person of asian Indian features on the non-negative use of “the” word.
    I agree that this prohibative use issue has raised the aura of the word to that of the Harry Potter situation of not being able to “say the name of him who shall not be named” when they are discussing the evil wizard.
    Enough said.

  6. I think I’ll confine myself to saying that I could not disagree more with the premise that words per se cause pain, and that stimatizing them further is ever a good thing. (Or that it’s in any way desirable to have a conversation about particular terms without using them.)

  7. This is more a response to Shmuel than your o.p.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about different kinds of access. Which is, as Leah-Lakshmi says, basically about love. I think using non-offensive language is just about creating a basic level of accessibility. Yes, it does require some of us to go outside our comfort zone and do things a little differently. But change is good. Change is powerful. Change is what life is all about. I can sit in a little box and defend my right to say whatever I want and use whatever words I want, but if I actually want other people to talk with me, I have to be willing to learn from what they say about how that dialogue can happen.

    As writing teachers are fond of saying, “Dialogue is what characters *do* to each other.” Words are action and they do have power. (Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater and all that.) If words couldn’t cause pain, then verbal abuse and bullying wouldn’t exist. Slurs represent a kind of verbal abuse and bullying on a mass scale, and I don’t think we should use them unless we really, really, really need to. Everyone knows what word Mary Anne’s talking about; she’s being very clear in her communication. Would it really help the discussion to type it out, whether once or repeatedly, just to defend some abstract principle or our “right” to do so? On the contrary; it would detract from the discussion, derailing it and re-inscribing the powerlessness that the word was meant to enforce for long periods of its history, and creating a high barrier for some of our community to participate.

    Yes, there is an argument that repeated use of a word can de-stigmatize it. In my view, the decision to go there should be left to those who are the direct targets of such a word. I feel perfectly comfortable claiming, using, and redefining the words dyke and queer. But for the Christian right to use those words is a whole different thing. Intent matters, positionality matters, and how much love is in our use of these words matters maybe most of all.

    And apologizing is a beautiful form of love.

  8. re Dennis B’ comments, I want to qualify as someone who was there that no one called anyone “racist” so much as pointed out that even using that word as an example still was uncomfortable.

  9. Argh, html fail. I’m sorry. Easier-to-read fixed version:

    Hi. I’m the person who pointed out that it made me uncomfortable. I think my exact wording was very close to: “I understand that you used it as an example, but the use of racial slurs makes me deeply uncomfortable regardless of the circumstances.” And that’s true. Had it been self-referential, i.e., a slur used for a group that the speaker is a member of, it would still make me uncomfortable, but it’s significantly less likely I would have made a public comment about it (for instance, the use of “bitch” also made me uncomfortable, but I opted not to comment on that).

    The argument that Dennis B. is making above is the “good intentions” argument, which has already been addressed by someone else. What it comes down to for me is that I don’t really care what someone’s intentions are; using something hurtful as an example is still using something hurtful. During a discussion of domestic violence, would you slap someone in the face to illustrate what you’re not supposed to do?

    Words have power. Not because they’re magical and intrinsically mean certain things, but because the meaning of a word is dictated by a combination of who says it, who hears it, and what society they’re both in. The intent of the speaker doesn’t have much to do with it. (E.g., it doesn’t matter if people who say that mixed-race people “are so exotic” are trying to indicate their acceptance, because it still results in othering and fetishizing the people they’re talking about.)

    Dismissing this as “PC” or “playing the race card” ignores the history of the word, of its use, and its current implications. I get that people engage in word reclamation. But you don’t get to decide for someone else that your use of a slur is somehow “non-negative.” And I find the idea that being “PC” is somehow “making things worse” mind-boggling, as it implies that it is not possible to discuss racism without using racial slurs.

    In what other circumstances would someone make that argument? Are we unable to discuss homophobia and heterosexism without using historically offensive slurs? Are we unable to discuss sexism without using historically offensive slurs?

    I certainly know gay men who would refer to themselves using terms that have a violent and terrible history, but that doesn’t give me the right to use them, despite being part of an also-oppressed group (as a woman who identifies as pansexual/queer), and I have never felt that not using those terms stifled my ability to participate in discussion or indeed the discussion as a whole.

    I appreciated Mary Anne’s apology and absolutely believe it to have been sincere; it was clearly a difficult situation and position, and I appreciated that she chose to go back to that point to address it further. But if you step on my toes accidentally and sincerely apologize, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt anymore–and in many ways, the context of the panel made it even more painful.

  10. Just wanted to say something, since it’s my post being linked to. First thanks for the link! I’m glad it was helpful to you.
    Second, to clarify – I wasn’t live-blogging the panel so much as writing down notes as well as I could with pen and paper and then attempting to make a post with the notes I got several days after the fact, so I may have missed/misrepresented some important stuff along the way. I’m willing and ready to make any edits to my post that people who were there might want to share!

    Re: the idea brought up that purposefully not using the word itself when bringing it up gives the word more power.

    I think it’s important to listen to the people who are directly affected by the word in question. If, for some people with disabilities, (an example I can personally speak to) say that using the word lame is hurtful, then I think it’s important to listen to that and not use it. OTOH, if many people with disabilities are arguing that we need to use the word lame more often to take the stigma away – then we need to listen to that. And if most people with disabilities are saying that it should only be other people with disabilities who get to use lame in that way, then that’s the part that should be listened to. [This is not a perfect analogy and I’m not actually making any arguments about the word lame in this comment]

    I think it’s a fair assessment to say that most black people feel that the n-word already carries quite a lot of power, is very hurtful to hear in any context used by someone who is not black themselves, and it is important for the rest of us to not actually use the word. So that’s what we ought to do. It’s not up to those of us who are not black to decide how to use the word or refer to the word. Period.

    Also, to reiterate what Maevele said: no one called Mary Ann a racist. There is a huge difference between saying “what you just said there has racist connotations” and “you are a racist.” Huge difference.

    Jess – I’m really glad you stopped by to add to this!

    I also find it baffling when people talk about being PC as a bad thing. How is it bad to be aware of your word choices and conscious of how they might affect other people? How is bad to be polite and compassionate towards other people? I’ll never understand how learning how *not* to verbally hurt one another is supposed to be this negative thing that’s somehow “out of control” now or something.

  11. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    Just wanted to say thanks to everyone for their comments — I found them helpful and thought-provoking. Especially glad Jess stopped by (and Jess, I deleted the version of your comment with the wonky HTML).

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