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Archive for November 23rd, 2009

derailment [n]: a defensive argument, statement, or question that dismisses or seeks to undermine anti-racist arguments in an effort to preserve privilege or the status quo

When faced with evidence that racism is still alive and well in our society, many white people will try to avoid responsibility for promoting racial justice and reconciliation by attempting to dismiss or undermine the evidence with derailment techniques.

Today’s derailment is a little bit different: it’s about white people who try to defend actions that should be considered overtly racist by appealing to supposedly “similar” actions by people of color.

“But they call each other the n-word, so why can’t we say it?”

“But they call white people ‘cracker’—isn’t that just as bad?”

Just flip the script, the argument suggests, and you’ll see that forbidding white people to use racial slurs is a just a double standard. Like most “flip the script” arguments, which generally require ignoring history and context, it’s wrong.

“But they call each other the n-word, so why can’t we say it?”

First of all, not all people of color do use slurs in reference to people within their own racial group(s). In fact, some are actively opposed to it. To choose but one example, please visit the website I Never Use the Word Nigger.

But when people of color do use slurs in reference to people within their own racial group(s), it’s most often an ironic appropriation: The marginalized group steals a term of oppression from their oppressors and reverses its meaning within the marginalized group, for example by turning it into a term of endearment. Through ironic use within the marginalized group, the term becomes an assertion of humanity and unity against the oppressor’s use of the term to degrade.

In any case, when members of a marginalized group use an oppressor’s slurs in reference to people within the group the term almost inevitably means something different than it does on the lips of oppressors (as above) and/or it is understood to self-apply. Within the group, it is more difficult for the term to coexist with racial stereotypes and dehumanization, and it is not being used to impose or enforce systemic oppression on a racial basis. The only exception I can think of is when it involves self-contempt, adopting the oppressor’s view of oneself.

Because we are not members of the marginalized group and there can be no self-application, ironic co-option of racial slurs directed at people of color is simply not open to white people.

“But they call white people ‘cracker’—isn’t that just as bad?”

Many people of color would never use a slur against white people, just as many white people refuse to use racial and ethnic slurs. But if people of color ever do use such terms and it is wrong for them to do so, that use does not excuse white people to use slurs in return. Two wrongs, as the saying goes, wouldn’t make a right.

That being said, I think it is valuable to point out that no term for white people coined and used in our society actually carries the weight of true racism. People of color do not impose or enforce a system of racial privilege against white people by the use of slurs. Any person, of any race, may harbor racial prejudice, consciously or unconsciously. Any person, of any race, can view or treat people differently based on race, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or not. All of us do this to some degree, and it can be hurtful no matter who does it. Not all people are capable, however, of racism in the broader, systemic sense. In the United States, racism is something imposed and perpetuated by white people to the advantage of white people. (For more information, please visit the Beginner’s Guide and Do White Americans Experience Racism?)

When I ask white people to tell me about the slurs supposedly used against white people by people of color, I find they rarely come up with many. And the ones they do come up with are not nearly so inflammatory as the slurs used against people of color, partially because they do not carry the weight of true racism (as mentioned above) and partially because of their history, use, and/or meaning.

The most common one I hear from white people is “honky.” I doubt this is frequently thrown at them, since it’s not a term I’ve heard since watching reruns of The Jeffersons. How insulted ought we to be? According to most etymological accounts, white people have only ourselves to blame for this one. It’s probably derived from “bohunk” and “hunky,” ethnic slurs white people used against Bohemian, Hungarian, and Polish immigrants. (The only alternative etymology I’ve uncovered is the suggestion that it comes from the Wolof word honq meaning “red or pink,” colors used to describe white men in Africa.)

The same goes for “cracker.” Most etymologies trace it back to an older English term for a braggart. An 18th century letter to the Earl of Dartmouth applies it to Scots-Irish settlers in the American South: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” As with “honky,” we probably have white folks to thank for this term.

An alternative folk-etymology for “cracker” suggests that it refers to slave overseers cracking whips. If so, it is intended to refer to white people who act as oppressors (often at the service of someone else’s interests, so it can also imply that the “cracker” is a dupe). In this usage, it is primarily used to identify and oppose racism, which is not remotely comparable to use of a term like the n-word. The purpose of slurs like the n-word is to dehumanize, the purpose of a word like “cracker,” according to its folk etymology, is to point out a moral failure.

Regardless, people of color do not and cannot impose or enforce a system of racial privilege against white people in our society through the use of slurs. If people of color ever do use them, and if it is wrong for them to do so, it will not excuse white people doing so in return.

Short version: We’re not going to promote racial justice and reconciliation by calling each other names. We need to develop respect for the people around us.

“As you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.”

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Do you have any thoughts on these topics? Please feel free to share.

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