Tuesday, July 2, 2013

On White Whine and the "N" Word...

So since the media hasn't found a more salacious story (I mean honestly, not even the Zimmerman trial, guys?) this week, we're still hearing about Paula Deen's adventures in racism and how not to plan a redneck wedding.

What can I say that hasn't already been said? She was dumb for saying it and dumber for getting caught. Was no one taking notes when Laura Schlessinger had her little misadventure in linguistic reclamation a few years ago? The one good thing that came of it (even in a twisted way) is that Deen shone a light on the hidden racism culture that's still prevalent in the south. But since many white southerners can't get over a war they (started then) lost 150 years ago, I don't see anything happening but "smarter" racists with finer tuned dog whistles in the future.

But once again, we see language coming into this. Largely due to a recent blog and broadcast feature, faux-intellectual whites who listen to too much NPR have been throwing out the phrase "code switching" over the last few months in particular, like their favorite limited edition Warhol is about to be sold as a mass-release poster and print at the local Wal Mart. Code switching, TL;DR: People modify communication based on their audiences, and some people aren't always told the rules of the code, so they struggle as they find it. There, I saved you from sixteen weeks of Postmodern literary theory from my undergrad linguistics seminar at FSU. I also saved you from some awful "privilege-shaming" (Jesus, I need to deconstruct this whole "privilege" kool aid sometime) 
programming on NPR. You're welcome.

As a writing teacher, this is the first thing I teach my composition students: know your audience. Study them. Learn how to genuinely reach out to them using their own chosen shared code. And this is the bite, controversy, and springboard to the next section: groups have various codes. Some codes are open and shared. Other codes are closed and proprietary--either because the word has insider significance or it simply has a signified meaning that those who share it have decided to create. For example, there's one phrase that I can use around my best friend from college (No, don't ask. It's better to say it in his presence. I'll get a far better reaction than if I just typed it) that can either embarrass him or make him lose his shit.

To outsiders, it's an ordinary phrase that makes him randomly blush and curl up in a fetal position. To him and me, it's a touchstone that brings us back to a special night in our friendship. It's like this: I can soak in tween programming to the point where I could use the lingo around my (nearly) fifteen year old nephew, but I'd never be authentic because I'd always be forty-year-old Uncle Panda, and not another tween. It was like when my father (then in his early 40s) hung around the old Invaders Arcade in Grand Blanc, Michigan, playing the video games instead of just watching with the other parents in 1981. (In a further analysis of good code-switching gone bad, Dad got extra "you're going it wrong" points for wearing golfing gloves to the arcades, embroidered with Pac Man on one hand and the ghost monsters on the other).

And as it always seems to happen when a non-black says the "N" word, get's caught, and becomes a media circus that distracts us from the *real* bullshit the government and our corporate masters are doing, a whole big cask of white whine gets opened up, with overly-entitled WASPS and white trash calling out double standards and asking why *they* don't get to say the word in question. (Who says that whites of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds can't come together on things...?) Maybe I just worked through that in my late teens. I'm forty, and still as socially awkward as a teenager, but I was an early bloomer with white guilt and associated self-awareness, I suppose... My maternal grandfather used that word (the big one, the Deen-killer) until the day he died, and I always flinched when he said it. Then in my sophomore year in college, my roommate was black, and we had a lot of late night discussions on race and race relations (we couldn't smoke weed in DeGraff Hall, so an hour of philosophical conversation gave that same head-spinning euphoria instead...without the munchies. Spend an hour wrapping yourself around Wittgenstein's _Philosophical Investigations_ if you don't believe me. You're welcome...again), including the "white whine" topic a few times. And by the end of it, I'd reached an epiphany: instead of getting pissy about not being able to say a work without social sanction, why say it in the first place?

Seriously? Why say it? It's not my word. I'm not its audience. It's like watching the middle class, early adolescent, WASPy white kid transform from preppy angel to gangsta thug over the course of a summer. "Trevor" at Memorial Day and "T-Dogizzle (bitch)" by Labor Day. He'll most likely never have the authenticity to be accepted by his entended adopted cohort, and he just looks like a poseur for pushing it.
"I said I wanted sprinkles on my froyo, mom! 
It's like crashing a party. No one may directly call you out for coming in uninvited, but a solid social shunning will let you know you're not wanted. It's like the weird transformation I saw in a few of my straight male friends from high school as soon as the phrase "I'm gay" left my mouth. I lost my party invite, the audience situation had reconfigured itself, and I was no longer a social insider.

I'm not going to police anyone's speech...if only because mine can get particularly...salty when provoked. However, as someone who has wasted far too many years of his life studying the mechanics of language, I'm also going to make my choices wisely. I'll leave others to make their own decisions using their own wisdom. Just as I never judged my grandfather (instead, I tried understanding him from a safe distance...if only because he was a crazy southern bastard who would use a fist or open hand far more than most rational reasoning skills), I don't judge anyone who uses that word. I just choose not to because I know it's a party where I'm not really wanted or welcome in the first place.

So to the white people still crying because they can't use the "N" word (which, come on, that's what you really want here. This "double standard" bullshit is just a logicfuck to justify it. Again, it's that toddler-esque, conservative sense of entitlement and envy over someone having more than you or something you don't), here's my challenge to you.

Teach your children to say the word "fuck." Encourage it. Make and sing songs using it. "Baa baa black sheep, have you any fucking wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three fucking bags full!" I'm really not being facetious here.

Seriously. Chances are, if they're older than eight, your kids are already saying it. It's just that they've adapted the code survival skills (back-pat moment: we've used out faux-intellectual word of the day! David Sedaris books on MP3 for all! Long live Jambi!) not to say it in front of you. So encourage them along. Let them say it anywhere: the house, school, public places, church, grandma's house... "That's the best fucking pie I've ever had, granny! I fucking love you!"

What's that? Pushback? Why the resistance? Why the revulsion? Why the urge to unwatch me because your sysadmin might see the much-fabled "F" word appear in your cache and call you out(...not that you should be surfing Tumblr at work anyhow, slacker)? A mark on your preschooler's record would keep him out of that dream prep school? A tactfully-deployed "F" bomb in front of Grandma might send her to her grave? People at the Harris Teeter (or Trader Joe's, or Publix, or whatever shi-shi grocer is in your region) might give you disapproving stares and tut-tut's under their breath?

That's why you can't use the "N" word, honkies.

It's not a double standard; it's audience.

If you won't let your ten year old use multiple forms of the word "fuck" in front of grandma because it's not appropriate audience relations, then you have no place trying to use racist logic and twisted guilt to try and either question another group's insider-speech or otherwise appropriate it for yourself.

So in closing, dear white conservatives: Our genetic line is now a numeric minority, and we'll soon be a true minority within a few more decades, as another group takes that magical 50.1% stake in America's racial identity. Can you *please* find something else to whine about here? Seriously, when I think of most of you using the "N" word anyhow, I imagine you having all the elegance and panache of the aforementioned middle schooler, T-Dogizzle (bitch). Honestly, it's time to find a new source of false outrage here...

...or just say "we want to be racist and want others not to care what we think." By admitting she used the word in question, that's what Deen tried to say...and we all saw how well that went.