I want you to know that I don’t get offended very often. But I am certainly offended by your recent letter telling me you are now “boycotting” my columns because I recommended a CD by David Allan Coe. The column you are referring to, “Circuit Cuidad,” was, ironically, a spoof on minority boycotts. Plenty of people misunderstood the column—perhaps none as thoroughly as you.
In today’s column I want to take some time to address your silly assertion that David Allan Coe’s use of the n-word—in more than one of his songs—means that both a) Coe is a racist and b) I am a racist for recommending his music. The former assertion isn’t important to me apart from its relationship to the latter assertion.
Before I explain why I don’t condemn others for the use of the n-word, let me explain why I do not use that word myself. There have actually been three different reasons for my avoidance of the n-word over the course of my lifetime.
My first reason for avoiding the use of the n-word was that when I was a child my mother would have punished me for using the word. Before I was able to understand what the word meant, that was a good enough reason. When I finally moved out of the house at age 20, it ceased to be a sufficient justification.
Later on, I decided that the use of the n-word was wrong because it was simply racist. But that justification for avoiding the word also eventually fell by the wayside when I realized that racism could be expressed in a number of different ways without the use of the n-word. A couple of incidents relating to a high school friend of mine named James Bluford are illustrative.
James’ father was the first black astronaut to fly a mission into space for NASA. He flew his historic mission in 1983, the year James and I graduated from Clear Lake High School. Unfortunately, when it became known that James’ father would be the first black man in space some idiotic classmates started to make racially insensitive jokes. Some said that James’ dad would be the first “coon to the moon.” Others said mission control would shout “the jig is up!” shortly after liftoff.
But, interestingly, I only heard the n-word used once in James’ presence during the course of our five-year friendship. That was done accidentally by a mutual friend of ours. James laughed at him when he did it and our friend must have apologized 100 times that evening. But no one with an IQ above room temperature would argue that his use of the n-word approached the mean-spiritedness of those racially insensitive remarks about James’ father. Those remarks were made on purpose and always outside the presence of my friend James.
So the point—just in case you missed it, Ray—is this: There are a million different words someone can use to express racial hatred. No single litmus test can effectively weed the racists from your midst.
And, so, eventually, I arrived at my third, and final, justification for avoiding the n-word; namely, that using the n-word damages a person’s credibility and makes him look like an uneducated fool. And, all things being equal, I’d rather come across as educated so people will take me seriously.
But enough about the way I monitor my own language. I have a few things to say about your suggestion that I should monitor the language of others. Specifically, I think your view is flawed for two reasons.
First of all, your view is simply unworkable. Censors like you are never satisfied by an initial goal—in this case monitoring the n-word. Pretty soon, you’ll be asking me to monitor and condemn those who use words that sound like racial epithets. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider an incident at one of our local middle schools.
When a school teacher used the word “niggardly” in a Wilmington, North Carolina, classroom a few years ago, she was accused of racism by people who didn’t even know the meaning of the word “niggardly”—or the meaning of the word “racism,” for that matter. Even a UNCW political science professor said she was being racially insensitive for using a word that sounded like an epithet.
Consider the logical implications of this for a moment. Must I refrain from talking about beer so I do not offend a queer? Must I refrain from talking about a stag so I do not offend a fag? Must I keep silent about my trigger because it might offend a—Ray, I hope you’re getting my point by now.
But the other—and more serious—reason that your view is wrong is that it is actually racist. I hear young black males (I never seem to hear it from black females) using the n-word almost every day on my campus. You have not suggested that I should condemn them for using the n-word. You want me to condemn David Allan Coe simply because he is white.
In other words, Ray, you want me to hold white people to a higher standard than black people. That is the view my university takes on a number of issues – including the admission of blacks, the hiring of blacks, and the tenure and promotion of blacks. It is simply a racist view. And, needless to say, I’ll have nothing to do with that kind of racism.
But I have another thing to say before I sign off, Ray. I want you to be a little more niggardly in your use of these boycotts. That was the whole point of the original article before racism once again took us off topic.