Monday, November 27, 2006

Michael Richards on Jesse Jackson's Radio Show

Paul Dawson's Channel WHAS11 (Louisville, KY) Interview trying to explain how these n-terms differ.

On Sunday, November 26th, Michael Richards appeared on Jesse Jackson's Keep Hope Alive radio show.

The Keep Hope Alive radio show and Premiere Radio Networks has uploaded the MP3 files to the show's website in four segments. You can go directly to the site, or I've linked them for you below. If you want to save it, just right click and either "save target as" or "save link as."

I heard what he had to say last night, and, okay, he's sorry. I, however, can't accept his apology for anyone else but myself as he's apologized to all black Americans. I still find his apology to be lacking. I want to see him out in my community making a genuine effort to bridge the racial divide he helped widen. That not only applies to Richards, but to a lot of people out there from black hip-hop stars to everyday people. More activism would benefit us, society and the world tremedously.

I agree with Reverend Jackson and others that it opens up the door for honest dialogue on the race issue. I've read a couple of commentaries that reduce it to "why can black people say the n-word, but white people can't?" dichotomy. That analysis is incredibly simplistic and ignores so much of the issue that I rarely ever engage in trying to explain why there is a difference. However, let me try.

Black Americans have a history of communicating in ways that whites simply find difficult interpret and understand. This was done for a very good reason: as a slave, you couldn't speak frankly in front of a slave master or overseer for risk of being beaten or worse. Clearly, that legacy still exists in black American English. We learned how to speak in code as slaves and that has carried on up to now. It's not another language as some have argued; however, I would argue that it is a distinct and constantly evolving dialect that is unique to my culture.

Within that context, I think using the term is confusing to whites because they see it as solely an offensive term. However, the meaning of the term very much depends on who is saying it and the context in which it is being said. I remember a case a few months back where a white teacher, Paul Dawson, elected to use the term when speaking to a black student. He explained that he used it because he hears the kids using it and he's heard it in various hip-hop lyrics, so it was a way to get the student's attention. He also tried to differentiate one term from another. What he ignored is that the context shifts when it's a white person speaking to a black person because of America's brutal history with the slave trade and violent legacy of racism. For me, I find it odd that some whites can't understand that between two young black men saying it doesn't hold the same offensiveness as a white man saying it to a young black man.

Another argument I've seen is a white person trying to argue that a black person using terms such as "cracker" or "honky" is just as offensive as a white person saying "nigger." The fact is the context of history and the existence of white privilege and power makes those two terms less offensive. A black person who has no power or financial resources to put their dislike of whites into action calling a white person a cracker or honky is a joke and a vain exercise of what little power that person has in the grand scheme of things. It's like a little girl who is mad at her father giving him a punch in the calf. Yeah, it might be annoying, but the sting is nominal.

Whereas the sting from being called a "nigger" is a reminder that we, as a people, were brought to America against our will. We were stripped of our language and prevented from passing on knowledge of our culture. Therefore, most black Americans know nothing about their origins but that their bloodline most likely originates from somewhere on the west coast of the African continent. In addition to not having knowledge of our roots, our ancestors were treated as subhuman. They were raped, and they were murdered; and, we've never received a formal apology from the US government. "Nigger" is a loaded term. "Cracker" or "honky" is not.

Should people not use the term? Well, that's what my mother believed. We'd discussed it a few times. I believe that in the context of black-on-black the meaning shifts. However, even if that's true, the popularity of using it in hip-hop and rap has caused a lot of confusion. In light of the explanation I may or may not have successfully explained above, I do think we need to censor ourselves and stop using the term.

Also, here is some media coverage on the interview:

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  1. Hey, nice blog! Interesting you should pick up on those two words...'cracker' and 'honkey'. I am white and find those words quite far away from insulting. I lived in Africa and tried to get my co-workers to teach me a 'racist' word for whites. The best I got was Muzungo..In Swahili, that was translated to 'bad westerner' in the swahili/english dictionary I had. Anyway, I'm still looking for a racist word for whites, there surely must be one! Anyway, take care and have a great day.

  2. Thanks for your compliment and your comment!

    Well, actually I wrote what I wrote because I was clicking around to various blogs. I found a conservative blog that tried to make the argument. I didn't think it was worth leaving a comment and can't even remember the name or web address. However, I thought about it for a day or so and decided to address what I'd read.

    I've heard "white devil." That's another one.

    Honestly, I think you've found racist words, but the fact is due many reasons such as power differences they just don't grate as hard.

  3. I don't see why Richards would apologize for insulting hecklers at a comedy show - no matter what he said.

  4. Interesting.

    So heckling, which is pretty much par for the course and comes from ALL types (that is, it's not exclusive to blacks) when you do stand-up, is offensive enough to lay into racial epithets AND references to lynchings is an appropriate response?

    Let me put it another way, if I go into stand-up and white hecklers choose to come after me, it would be appropriate for me in response to launch into how I hate white people, how they're evil and how if they're in my neighborhood late at night they'd get their asses kicked? Since I don't hate white people and live in Seoul this is purely hypothetical because I'm trying to make a point here.

    He wasn't doing an Andrew Dice Clay inspired routine. This was rage and not improvisation.

    If you can't see how his response was completely over the top, well, that's unfortunate.


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