Trigger warning: this story contains references to racist and sexist language
Policing words instead of hearts
I have never used the N-word in my life. Even when reading Mark Twain or a Countee Cullen poem about Baltimore. You know the one. No other word works because no other words rhyme easily with “bigger.”
I hate that word, I hope you do too. Never use it.
Our household was raised to be ferociously antiracist. But the older I became, the more aware I became of how systemic racism especially in the country to the south (we were Canadian in origin) continues to crush culture, wreak madness, destroy lives, and hinder progress.
When referring to my dead brother, (I will call him Seth), it may be important to note he was an older brother whose childhood was lived mostly in the 1950s and 1960s’ when people still employed not only such terrible language but even worse ideas. As much as I believe that you can’t excuse lax morals due to historic context, I also realize that times change. That is a GOOD thing.
Language use changes too. This causes enormous misunderstanding.
The 1970s are not the 1980s
My older brothers were outcasts in our heavily militarized and authoritarian family of good soldiers.
They were called “long hairs” not hippies — hippies were more like flower children — my older brothers were more like rebels, even toughs. They fell into marijuana use in the 1970s, which at the time was considered very anti-social at the military base where we lived.
Long story short, Seth began to grow pot and sell it. He went to federal prison for it. His wife died from suicidal/depression. His two kids were torn apart and assigned to different grandparents. He nearly died in a prison boiler fire accident that mutilated his body. In jail, Seth picked up “gang” life, although since I was a small child, I do not know for sure if that’s what to call it. He had friends in the Big House who came in all colors and dispositions, let’s say.
When Seth got “out of the joint” after almost a decade, his wife was dead. His home was confiscated. His daughter was in another state, and his oldest son was hooked on heroin. He was bitter, enraged, hateful, ill, and disoriented. No one would hire him for a secure job. He went to work as a landscaper. He would never be allowed to vote again.
Nancy Reagan never swears, so she’s a good person, right?
By this time, I was old enough to move from home, myself, and get a job to put myself through college. Looking back, I can see myself as a privileged (even if severely emotionally damaged, shy, white girl). I hated drugs because I thought they were one source of destroying our family. Now, I can very clearly see that it was the so-called “war on drugs,” that hurt both family and society.
Youth are impressionable. Selling drugs was easy and evil. Working minimum wage and staying Phi Beta Kappa convinced me I was stronger, nicer, and a “good person.” It certainly gave me more confidence than being a loser/dealer/prisoner.
At this time addiction was only beginning to be seen as a health issue.
That war on drugs, which ironically smashed lives disproportionately affecting brown and Black people, is why Seth often said, quote: “I am treated like the N ***** of the family” unquote.
Today, being PC, everyone just disparages gender instead, often saying “You are my B****, now. (instead of N word) Is that better? No.
Seth was being racist, but now I comprehend as a full adult what he meant. He meant that society treats some members of our human family despicably worse than others: BIPOC. Even antiracists like we white bread good soldiers did not fully grasp this at the time, and it’s too late, after Seth’s, his wife’s, brothers, and, incidentally, his only son’s death in a sting organized by local cops.
We lost people we dearly loved.
And it happened due to racism as much as the drug war.
Make no mistake, the war on drugs targeting people like Seth — who sold marijuana in Washington and Colorado — shattered our whole family, setting mom against dad, and older brothers against younger kids, even grandparents against custodial guardians.
Thanks for nothing, Nancy Reagan.
Timing changes times
As a child of the seventies and eighties, I got all the good parts of the post-1960’s era: civil rights, women’s liberation, Earth consciousness, anti-poverty, gay rights, and even the science and technology that propelled us to go to the moon. For a moment, America really did have a glimmer of MAGA.
Timing is a good part of the reason I got to be a graduate, futurist and scientist, whereas my older brothers — all dead by addiction and disorder — did not.
Seth did not. He was a broken teen and hung out with “unsavory types.” I think Seth meant that he saw the injury in his BIPOC friends and wanted to call it out. The racism invoked by the war on drugs erased much of our potential MAGA. Greed, corruption, and anti-democracy did the rest.
The way that Seth called it out, sadly, was counterproductive and made him into a racist himself according to the non-nuance of people who see only that hateful word and not meaning, nor intent.
I deeply regret that in my immaturity, I did not reflect upon this.
Simply put, we who refuse to use that word may unconsciously see ourselves as doing the right thing. We sometimes then, blame those don’t do the right thing.
People, say and do, what they believe is right. Most of the time.
A quick aside: this is why I do not even like any human beings to use the hated racial slur, regardless of skin color; just as I have weird language issues with the C-word, the B-word, and any hurtful words. Even the sex act word was one I cannot say to this day because the colonization of it into an attack word has simply removed all semblance of beauty or romance for me. I do understand the supposed empowerment of taking back a word, yet I somehow doubt that AOC uses the phrase “F-word B-word” playfully, or for empowerment after her misogynistic run-in last year with Representative Yoho. Please, ask her, someone?
The same applies to “faggot” (can I write that!?) or any word at all that has been historically employed to oppress and abuse others.
My church and especially my mother, as an abuse victim, hated abusive language and forbade it, this set me up to think if I avoided hateful words I am a better person. I thought my older brothers just broke this rule to be jerks. And, sexist, racist jerks, at that, considering how much they cursed.
My point here is that some of us were raised to believe “Some words hurt. Don’t say those words.”
Does this limit free speech? Yes. It’s doing the right thing for possibly the wrong reason, at least in some cases. Believe it or not, some antiracists and anti-sexists are taught a good person carefully censors their vocabulary, and this leads to thinking we are being righteous at all times. No one can be fully righteous, at all times.
It took me years and years to figure this out. 2020 was the great “white hope” of racial reckoning for the white half of the human race. We still have tons of work to do to redirect our tax dollars to protect and serve. And, even more, work must be done to do to get people to think and feel. The greater majority of people want to fight on the right side of history and this must not be forgotten.
My purpose in writing this article is to try to express long overdue love for Seth, but also to try to explain people use words wrongly, incorrectly, and counter-productively all the time. When your defense shields go up, no matter your skin color, your understanding goes down.
Therefore, for myself, I don’t think that we should limit some words to some groups that rile up all indignation when others don’t agree. Our intent should always be considered, too.
I get it that the N-word is worse for some, and playful, for others. But I also get it, now, what Seth was trying to say. And I just want to say one thing from an uppity, self-righteous teen who did not fully reflect on intent.
Dear Seth, I am so sorry.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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Photo credit: Damir Spanic on Unsplash