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Seattle, Senior Citizenry, Sushi and Sisters: Part II

After doing six “Nigger-word” workshops in two days all over Seattle here I was introducing myself to a table of four highly intelligent, very cool, extremely witty, visually engaging women. My buddy, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. and I had been invited to join this eclectic group of professional women for dinner and drinks at Wasabi Sushi in Seattle’s Belltown district after one of our presentations. Because we had arrived somewhat fashionably late they had to relocate from a smaller table to a table that was only slightly larger with the two of us joining them. I decided to demonstrate how considerate I could be by introducing myself to them and apologizing to them for the inconvenience they would be experiencing at our expense. When I extended my hand and said "Hello, I am J.W. and I just wanted to introduce myself and apologize for any inconvenience,” one of the women said "Did you say your name was J-man?" I said "What?" Her friends were all shocked as well as floating between some level of embarrassment and laughter! I looked at her and then repeated what her friend had just asked her. “Did you just call me J-man?” Now I need to tell you that they don’t come too much more chill than this woman. Where most people would have disappeared from what many would label a racially verbal gaffe, unlike that deer lost in the headlights, she looked directly at me and with the slyest undercurrent of a laugh, said “But I thought you said your name was J-man? How is that wrong?”

Aside from her tongue-in-cheek sophisticated way of sidestepping her not-really-a-gaffe moment, she was right, how is it wrong? If she thought I said J-man, how can that be racist? Well, on one hand, it isn’t. On the other hand, it is! Aside from the fact that J-man itself as a term isn't racist, J-man as a stereotypical assumption about a man's name definitely flirts with racism. Calling someone J-man is racist, or perhaps better said, a symbol of the impact of racism—whether she meant it or not—if she heard J-man because of stereotypes associated with casually dressed Black men. Especially if most people would have heard what I actually said when I introduced myself, saying, “Hello, I’m J.W.?, which appeared to be the case with all of her friends, even those sitting further away from me. In other words did she already start to hear, or expect, something like J-man when she saw two black men, not in suits, approaching her table?

One of the things Eddie challenges our audience to consider throughout our “Nigger-word” presentation— and it is one of our most provocative points—is what is the image of “nigger” that we carry with us. Well, not that she was thinking nigger (or not that she wasn’t either, albeit subconsciously), because I definitely didn’t think she was consciously. However, Eddie makes the assertion that because of the weight of the word “nigger” in our society, you can’t escape a dysfunctional image when you say the word. Conversely, as an identifier traditionally directed at African-Negro-niggra-colored-Afro American-black-Black-African Americans, it is hard to not associate it with any negative attribute of people who “fit the description.” This is not always limited to so-called Negroes either. It also proliferates our society in an array of intriguing ways, both by those outside of the Black (for lack of a better term) community, as well as inside of it. Yes, black folk use the N-word as well, which is where some would say the real problem lies. I’m curious though, how many of you have a take or any take on this word? Often people say it is confusing how some use it, some don’t, some think they can, and others state they won’t? What is your take? What are your stories?

Quite an ironic moment occurred prior to our encounter with the women. Earlier in the evening while Eddie and I were maneuvering our way around for lunch, we turned a corner and saw two black men on a corner. It was a downtown area and therefore, during the lunch rush it was fairly crowded. So, though we saw them, I don’t think Eddie or I really focused on them more than anyone else out and about. As we passed them, one of them said to us “Either of you two niggers knows where the Park and Ride is?” Eddie and I, actually on a break from doing one “Nigger-word” workshop and just a couple of hours away from doing another, looked at each other and chuckled a stifled, heavy hearted, laugh at the tragicomic moment we had just experienced. Can you relate, or have you ever had a similar moment? Like comedian Dave Chappelle says at the end of his infamous skit “The Niggar Family,” “This racism is killing me.”

Okay, so back to Eddie, the women folk, and me. The lovely woman who had referred to me as J-man, turned out to be amazing, as did her sister (both Canadian), the woman who orchestrated the dinner, and their feisty red headed friend from high school, also Canadian. We consistently revisited the moment amongst martinis and multiple shots of unfiltered sake that was described by these bodacious women in ways that I can’t go into during the family hour. We actually talked, laughed, assessed, kidded, teased, considered, unpacked, dismissed, cajoled, and digressed. While we only spent about 30 minutes in total ever discussing the “J-man moment,” we probably brought everything to the conversation on J-man and its subsequent implications that most would bring, except ridicule. We hung out in this bar for 210 minutes (3 ½ hours, for those of you who got tripped out about how I chose to give you the time). Everyone was chill, even in the passionate articulation of a point. That was really fascinating. It was like catching lightning in a bottle. It may not happen again, and most will never experience it.

At the end of the day though, the J-man moment still fascinates me for both its simplicity and complexity. Why do you think that is?

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The J-Man dining moment mirrors memories I have of years past:

~ A young white man leans against a brick wall, a young black man walks up, clean cut, pants slightly sagging. As he passes by, the white man says, "Sup homie."
It wasn't muttered in a resentful, sarcastic or hostile way, simply a salutation from the lips of a young man conditioned by the MEDIA to assume a young black man with perceived "flava" is a "homie."

~ A group of military trainees sit on hot pavement, the South Carolina sun beating their heads. A young white man looks up as a young black man passes and the white man offers, "Sup nigga." Hundreds of black and white heads turn to the white man, words like, "crazy," "fool," and "somebody slap that white boy," are hurled at the young white man. I remember thinking the young white man wasn't inspired by racism and that the young black man may have been his friend, but I quickly realized that to a whole lot of people he was viewed with hostility at that moment. But if it wasn't his friend, damn, what an ignorant example of letting stereotypes guide you, especially when the n-word drops from the mouth of a white man.

~ A conversation with a family member describing the arrest of a woman for allegedly hitting her husband, whom she had caught cheating. I said to the family member, "Well, you can't just go around hitting people, though I believe he provided the overpowering incentive."
The family member responded, "Well, you know how black women are."

"No, why don't you tell me."

"You know, all hand in your face, overreactive."

"Didn't know that."

I then proceeded to politely point out that his perception of this woman's action was a result of his upbringing in rural white America, MEDIA stereotypes and the fact that the few African Americans he interacts with are inmates at the prison where he works as a correction officer. I offered some of my own conditioned prejudices I've worked to overcome and offered that his perception of this particular woman may be right on, but his catergorization of black women as "hand in your face" and "overreactive" was bulls*%# and that he was too smart to let stereotypes spread by a capitalistic system influence how he sees those around him.

*** Stephen, good stories to assist me in better framing the J-man moment. Again, the woman who asked the J-man question believed she heard me say J-man, and I will go to my grave believing she wasn't trying to be clever or manipulative by asking me if that was my name. While all of this discourse surrounding J-man could be construed as an overreaction, on the other hand, as you have already pointed out, the things we hear are often conditioned by many other extenuating factors.

My question to you Stephen is how does Capitalism spread stereotypes? *** -- J.W.

JW, I have never heard the phrase "J-man" used before, in any way shape or form. How is it racist? Could you enlighten me? I even did a search of it on www.urbandictionary.com and *they* didn't know what it meant, so I'm really in the dark. (though, they did give a few possible meanings, one of which was a man who sells joints, another was a way of referencing Jesus Christ--neither of which, from what I could see, would be *racist*, per se)

As for your question to me in the other post, if it "felt good" for me to "break you off" I figured it was only fair--how often do you correct me (or at the minimum, challenge me) on my usage of "girl" when I am not using it in a degrading way (I have the utmost respect for females, be their age 17, 70, or somewhere in the middle). We all get a turn being misunderstood, I suppose.

*** J-man isn't necessarily racist, but the type of name that might be associated with someone from the 70s who hasn't figured out that we are now in the new millenium. As an educated man who would like to think I project a level of class in the way I comport myself, I can't imagine introducing myself to someone as J-man. All of the hullabaloo is more about the context. Not only did I react to her J-man question, but her whole crew reacted as well. As I said in the posting, after their initial shock at hearing her say it, they gave her as much fun filled flack over it as Eddie and I did.

Your statement that "we all get a turn at being misunderstood" lost me. I have never misunderstood you when you use the term "girl" to frame a "woman" in a story you tell. I just firmly believe that those of us who are committed to social justice must understand all the levels of privilege that we are fortunate to have. As well, many of our privileges infringe on the rights of others, or contribute to oppressing others, even when it is not done intentionally. When we refer to a grown woman (over age 17) as girl we contribute to the infantalization of women. A caring, considerate man like you doesn't mean to do that, but nonetheless may be doing it when he uses the term girl to describe a woman. Language is powerful and we should really consider the statements we make, and appreciate when people that we know care about us take the time to at least make us consider some of the things we say. In other words, I'm just giving love!

My question about you "breaking me off" wasn't a condemnation, just a question. And yes, as much as I dish it out, I should be able to take it. However, that doesn't diminish my desire to know if you licked your chops before you started typing your response to me, especially since I try not to leave myself vulnerable to getting "broke off." *** -- J.W.

Brennan,

Apparently you didn’t search the urban dictionary website too hard. If you try

http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=j+man

that might give you the answer you are looking for. I really don’t think any of these definitions would pertain to J.W., and I can see why he questioned the woman when she innocently asked him if that was his name.

Hey J.W.
Couple of quickies...first, thanks to Imm for the urban dictionary link. I too needed to be educated. I thought J-man might just be a "slang" way of saying anyone's name that begins with a "J" - like "C-man" for Card Buddy. Or would that rightly be "CB-man?" I digress...
Second...if it was two white guys that would have asked you that question about the park-and-ride, I bet you wouldn't have found the incident nearly as amusing.

The use of language and who gets to say what is, for me, one of the most frustrating parts of trying to achieve racial understanding. Take it all the way back to Don Imus. You can turn on BET and hear things 10 times as derogotory toward African American women as what Imus said - and they are PRINTING money at BET, not just making it. No one's getting fired over there. No activists are calling for pop-music to be more responsible and accountable in the language used in songs. And certainly, no one is calling for anyone in the music industry to be fired. Funny thing is, most of the major record labels (maybe all of them) are owned by very large corporations controled by (drum roll please) old rich white guys (or Japanese guys in the case of SONY). So, might this be a case of "the man" still pulling the levers?

Use of language has everything to do with context. The problem is, the racial context of our society is constantly shifting. For example, I often greet my close male friends with the salutation, "how are you my brother" without giving it a second thought that some might find it offensive. I didn't have any brothers (or sisters for that matter) growing up so I've sort of adopted some along the way. 20 years ago I probably would never have done that. A friend of mine and I attended a Globetrotters' exhibition recently and we both laughed after the game that one of the players joked that he actually found some black people in Lake Placid. We both agreed that there was a time when the two of us (my friend is African American) could never have laughed about that together.

And aside from constantly changing, context is also relative. Two people participating in or witnessing the same conversation may have completely different views of that conversation because each brings different experiences to it. Again, Don Imus - I was watching the show when he said "...nappy-headed hos" and cringed just a little bit -thinking that's just ol' crotchety Don again. I always viewed Imus as an equal-opportunity offender. But then the next day BOOM! the world is coming down on the guy like a ton of bricks. No way did I think he deserved the firing squad that he got - but then - it wasn't me he was talking about.

Now it seems to be fashionable for black comedians to make fun of white people (and I'll grant there's a lot of material there) but flip the jokes around and have them coming out of the mouth of a white guy and it's suddenly offensive. This isn't new. Remember the movie "White Men Can't Jump?" Ever think they'll make a movie titled "Black Men Can't Swim?"

So, in the use of language, who is the arbiter? If you are offended, does that mean that I have offended you? Does intent matter? Should it? Since white's have enjoyed majority status for so long, and oppressed just about everyone else along the way, is it our turn to take some shiznit (how do you like me now!?)?
You're not the only one who gets to ask questions, J.W.

*** CB, By far, this is your most provocative posting. You really had me thinking on how best to engage your question(s). Okay, so let's do this!

If it had been two White guys asking me that question using the N-word, it wouldn't have been amusing at all, nor ironic. If your wife's brother affectionately called her the B-word and--it had been a term of endearment between them for years--you might be able to put it in perspective, but anyone else outside of the family directing that language at her wouldn't be amusing to you on any level, right? Though many Whites don't understand some of the subtle (and admittedly problematic) dimensions of the N-word as a term of endearment between/amongst Black folk, it nevertheless is. Why is it so frustrating to understand? You've heard the saying "it's a Black thing." Well, perhaps that saying should really refer more to the sentiment extended by Sly and the Family Stone years ago, "It's a Family Affair." In some strange way, Many Black people in the development of a culture to replace the one they were stripped of when enslaved in America--tend to see other Blacks as family. This may stem from the fact that the Black family was systematically separated from one another through the sale of family members as commodity. So, a level of familiarity existed between so-called Negroes back in the day whereby they would always acknowledge one another with the thought in mind that the Black person you next encounter could be a sibling, cousin, even parent that you haven't seen since childhood. A salutation that includes the N-word, while seemingly dysfunctional on all levels, isn't necessarily. On the other hand, that sense of camaraderie that Blacks have for one another isn't necessarily a bad trait. I have met many Whites who have commented on the fact that they are envious of Black people's rapport with one another in contrast to the lack of rapport with encounters between White strangers.

You said "Remember the movie "White Men Can't Jump?" Ever think they'll make a movie titled "Black Men Can't Swim?"" I don't think they would ever make a film called "Black Men Can't Swim" but I do think that one of the many reasons this wouldn't occur is that, in general people would argue that White Men's inability to jump is one of the few ways in a society that they are limited. Black men's inability to swim is one of the many things that Black men couldn't do, because they just couldn't, or because social constraints may have prevented them from valuing swimming in ways that we (American society) simply haven't processed (not too dissimilar from most Whites never processing the hypocrisy of a holiday alled Independence Day when considered against a Black person's lack of freedom. We just don't think about these things.

I think that anyone who believes that it is Whites turn to take some shiznit--and I don't like you any more or less for usurping Snoop's lyrics, though it is a shame that you, a White man, are once again exploiting the black man for your ill-gotten gain. :) --needs to relax as well as attempt to be a bit mature!. That is like a woman believing it is time for all men to pay for the sins of other men who have consciously oppressed women. The best thing that can occur in any of these situations is the recognition by those in privileged positions that they may be inadvertently receiving benefits and opportunities that they don't deserve any more than the people they often judge as not on their level, without considering the reasons why.

CB, I don't know if you saw the In My Opinion piece I wrote some time ago on Don Imus, where I said that Imus really symbolizes the notion that Don wasn't just being himself, but that Imus' comments were more symbolic of him saying "I'm us!" Many people, many of us, play cards similar to those Imus played and walk away unscathed. But none of us lives in a vacuum. For Imus to publicly say what he said was a classic example of someone reading his press clippings far too closely and believing he could do or say what he wanted to. Imus "tripped" which doesn't negate the fact that others trip and keep their jobs. But the rules of racial engagement are what they are, and they are out there for people to learn and understand if they choose to learn and understand them. We can whine about them and get frustrated about them, or we can learn them, and then relearn them or new versions of them when they shift. This is the hand that a dysfunctional society has dealt us "Card Buddy," so ante up! Oh, and it's your deal! *** -- J.W.

J.W.
I don't usually post twice on the same topic lest others feel somehow pushed out of the conversation, but, you called my bluff so here are my cards!

That is, by far, the most complete explanation I've ever heard as to how/why the N-word has a different context when used between and among African Americans vs. between Whites and African Americans, and I thank you for that. I am one of those whites who has felt a measure of jealousy of the rapport that exists among Black strangers. I first became aware of it in college and it's puzzled me ever since. Thank you for bringing me to a new level of undersanding. It's not difficult to understand. That's just the first time anyone has explained it to me that way. Nicely done!

I think your explanation on use of language boils down to this. "Equal" does not mean "the same." That is, we should all be "equally" sensative to each others' racial identities. And, opinions and persons should be valued "equally" but, that doesn't mean that every person gets to use "the same" language in expressing those opinions.

You say "the rules of engagement....are out there for people to learn and understand..." Really? What internet page is that? What book? I KNOW you're not going to tell me I could learn them from watching TV or listening to the radio. Culturally, they may permiate through the populations of New York, or L.A. or other large cities. But, how is a person supposed to keep up on "the rules" living somewhere with a 96% or higher white population? I hear you loud an clear about the value of "learning" vs. "whining." I agree. But then, should we not be more tolerant of those who are making honest attempts at understanding, but, who may not have access to the latest "rules changes" and so inadvertently offend? Maybe that's just what your workshops and this blog attempt to do.

Hey, JW. You told me you had a good discussion going on here so I thought I'd drop by and check it out. And while I was here, I thought I'd share some thoughts. Sure, I just got out of four hours of diversity class, but I guess I just can't get enough.

The word nigger is fascinating to me. It's quite possibly the most complicated word in the modern English language. Depending on the context, I can either love the use of the word or be appalled by it. And as much as I contemplate the use of the word, I can't even begin to understand the full depth and emotional baggage which the word carries with it. But I have formed some basic thoughts on the word.

I've framed the usage of the word in a few ways. I think it's a trip the way the meaning of the word has changed over time. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that I love the way the word (to some, not all) has been flipped on it's head. When it's used as a derogatory insult, it's a weapon which carries with it centuries of brutal, scarring exploitation. But that great weapon has been ingeniously dismantled by members of the black community. That's not to say that the harmful effects of the word have been completely eliminated. Depending on the use of the word, it can still be very hurtful. Many find use of the word to be hurtful, regardless of context.

But for some, the word can be a source of pleasure instead of pain. What used to be a tool of oppression, is now a tool of endearment and kinship among the very same group which it once oppressed. But the meaning of the word goes further than that. Use of the word can be heavily ironic. And in that sense, the weapon has not only been dismantled, but turned around against the oppression which it once served. When many whites would prefer to revise the brutal history of oppression and slavery, popular use of the word nigger ensures that it can not be revised, it can not be ignored, and it can not be forgotten. Perhaps this is why the word makes some whites so uncomfortable. Modern use of the word nigger could perhaps be thought of as a memorial, to the harm that the word once caused. Could the word be like a purple heart?

Perhaps the most ironic part of the word is that it's only really socially acceptable for black people to say it. It was once a tool in the exclusive right which white people had to oppress black slaves. Now it's use (socially acceptable use at least) is an exclusive right to the people it once oppressed.

I don't know, maybe I'm way off on this. I'm in know way an expert on the word, or it's uses. But those are some of the thoughts I've begun to formulate on the word. Let me know what you think J.W. And feel free to criticize me if you think any of what I said is my privilege talking. You know I can take it.

*** Michael, I definitely know you can handle criticism. After all, you are an ex-student of mine and now a TA. If is possible to exist in the diversity crew and avoid criticism, no matter who you are? I do have some insight to share with you on a point you made. But first, your take on the word nigger perhaps being something like a "purple heart" for Black folk provided a perspective that I had not heard framed that way, nor had I considered it in such a visual way!

Your statement "What used to be a tool of oppression, is now a tool of endearment and kinship among the very same group which it once oppressed" is ironic in itself. While I do agree that it is a term of endearment, that doesn't mean it didn't become this endearing term without its own scars. I am a proponent of the thought that the word nigger wouldn't be so endearing if people knew the history and the dimensions of the impact of the word. I imagine that Tupac, Biggie, 50 Cent, Snoop, etc, would not have used the word if they had been introduced to the history and associated pain. I don't know if I am comfortable saying that the word has been "ingeniously dismantled" by the Black community. I think Black folk picked up some of ol Massuh's ways without thinking about them and when a Black person did something problematic, they were perceived unjustly as meriting the label. This labeling occurred so much during and after slavery that nigger became interchangeable with any other way to generically greet or refer to Black folk. If Black folk that are comfortable using the word nigger--or trying to justify its usage--understood that everytime they use it they reopen some of those wounds and contribute to the furthering of dysfunctional perspectives about Black folk, they may not have ever used it in a rap song or everyday street language. So, yes, I think it is hard to reclaim a word that you never fully understood. But that is just the opinion of a once so-called Negro! *** -- J.W.

Well, I had to go to the urban dictionary to find out what J man meant. Ugh. I could have lived without knowing that.

Using a slur within your own group, but taking umbrage when it's used by someone else is nothing new or especially a "Black thing."

You pointed this out with the "bitch" explanation, but there are many more examples. I've heard people call each other slur words that would have led to physical altercations if someone outside the group said it.

I can call myself, my friend, etc., a [insert ethnic slur] , but no one else better say it.

Is that really so hard for people to understand?

Thanks for you input on the use of the word. I suppose my opinion on the use of the word was rather optimistic and probably naive. I really can't begin to understand the word because it's never been directed towards me in a negative way.

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