Some words never lose the ability to hurt

September 17, 2002|By SUSAN REIMER

JESSIE AND five friends were scheduled to play in a two-day lacrosse tournament in Ocean City, and it was my job to get the girls there - and to get them off the Boardwalk in time for the next game.

The girls and I had no sooner packed my van with sporting equipment and stuffed animals, junk food and bed pillows, when a voice I hardly recognized bellowed from the back seat: "Yo, Jessie! DJ it up!"

It was Jenn, who usually chirps like a member of The Mouseketeers. She'd just fired the starter's pistol on a weekend of total-immersion pop culture.

For three days - from the van's CD player to MTV on the hotel room TV - I heard, and saw, the music to which these studious young girls had memorized nearly every lyric. It was all rap, all hip-hop and all shockingly foul.

And these are girls who would not think of leaving home without their retainers and their homework.

By way of comparison, I once turned the volume way up on "Let's Spend the Night Together" by the Rolling Stones and defied my parents to do anything about it.

My young charges more closely resembled Madeline and her classmates than I do Miss Clavel.

But in nearly every song played that weekend (except those on a Carole King CD which the girls inexplicably adore) were heard three very discouraging words: "nigger," "bitch" and "whore."

I knew these words were out there, of course. I spend most of my life behind the wheel of the van while my daughter and her friends flip stations.

I'd even asked one of the girls to put together a CD for me, featuring Nelly and Usher and P. Diddy, because their musical hooks are so infectious, and the bounce and the beat give me more energy than caffeine.

Until that weekend, though, I had no idea those words were so commonplace in music.

But aside from shrieking in outrage at some of the more lascivious lyrics, I kept my mouth shut and listened that weekend - to the songs and to the girls.

They began to forget I was there. And such an uncensored, unscripted glimpse into the world our children must navigate is sometimes more important than making one of those parental scenes for the sake of propriety.

It took a snow shovel to clean the candy wrappers and water bottles out of the van after that weekend, but I couldn't get those lyrics out of my head.

I was driving Jessie to school not two days later when we heard on the news that a teacher in Wilmington, N.C., had received a formal reprimand for using the word "niggardly," which means miserly, in a classroom discussion.

It was then that I lost my temper, at what seemed like an unbelievable double standard.

Once an offensive word like the n-word has been set loose in popular culture, there can be no complaint when it - or something that sounds like it - shows up elsewhere. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.

When the corporate machinery behind youth culture, and the artists they promote, take a word associated with slavery, lynching and segregation and infect teens with it, there can be no legitimate affront when it is heard on the sidewalk or in the workplace.

You cannot put a word so incendiary that it starts fights and ruins careers into play and then punish those who pick it up and run with it.

Rappers and comedians use the n-word as a term of affection. It is how they refer to a group of very loyal friends. If that is OK with their friends, it is OK with me.

But I don't use profanities to refer to my girlfriends and neither does Jessie, and we object - hugely, strongly - to the use of those words as a synonym for "women."

When women use those words, they mean them - in the worst way. And if someone else uses them, that is how we take it - in the worst way. That is not how women refer to friends.

But when Chris Rock and Nelly and Ludacris use the most inflammatory racial slur as a term of endearment, they give tacit permission for others, including Latino, Asian or white listeners, to use the same word in the same way.

How, then, can anyone within earshot of these artists be beaten, fired, disciplined or criticized for using it, too?

Randall Kennedy, Harvard law professor and author of Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, argues that words lose their sting when they are mainstreamed.

He makes the case that using that word in a benign fashion takes control of the word away from racists.

But Richard Delgado, a Mexican-American, a professor of law at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Words that Wound, disagrees.

He argues that the fact that some whites use the word to spice up their vocabulary does not disarm it, and that it should be retired from public discourse.

"I don't think the word gets less bad because up-and-coming black people are the ones using it," he said.

"It is hate speech, and their use of it confuses the issue and makes it easier for really racist people to use that term."

If the n-word loses its ability to hurt and do harm because it is used as a term of affection and inclusion - if young black children do not weep and young black men are not filled with rage when they hear it - then it is a good thing.

But that hasn't happened with the b-word or the w-word. And if women have any say in this, it won't.

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