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.