Over the weekend a friend of mine wrote a blog post about her experience working a volunteer booth. I am going to focus on a small portion of it. During the conversation they began discussing who they would vote for in the upcoming Presidential election. The man she was speaking to indicated that he would vote for McCain, since they had at least casually agreed on most of their conversation to that point this seemed a little strange to my friend, so she inquired as to why. This was his response:
“Cuz I’m not gonna vote for a nigger or a chick”
Later, when the inappropriate use of those words was pointed out, he tried the old Called-On-The-Carpet-Two-Step (TM) of trying to flip the situation by accusing her of judging him based on his words. He went on to say that (paraphrased in her words) â€œthat was stupid, words have power and should be usedâ€.
Before I go on, let me make the simple point that I take exception to his basic premise, on many levels. Here is a short non-inclusive list, for your convenience:
1. While words do have power, that does not necessarily mean they should be used. Fire is very powerful, and as we all know from elementary school, should not be used in a crowded theater if there is, in fact, no fire.
2. The power contained in words is not created equal. Actually, thatâ€™s not true, the power is created equal, however what we do with words, as a society, changes all of that. Nigger has undergone such a conversion. While â€œcuteâ€ and convenient in the face of a 5’2″ (that is a guess, I do not know how tall she actually is) white person, I can ensure you he would not have used that word around me and my rather large black friends. He is choosing his spot to use a word and using a false argument (or at lease one that he would not have the courage to stand behind in the face of a more hostile audience) to support his actions when he was called on it.
3. When used to advance yourself (or a group you belong to) or set back another (or a group they belong to) it is not called “power” it is called “oppression”.
Lets take a minute and talk about the “power” of his chosen words.
The word â€œchickâ€, in this usage, is dismissive and invalidating. Regardless of whether you take the literal connotative meaning (a cute, young, helpless thing) or the offhanded categorical connotative meaning (an insignificant, unqualified, lesser person) what you are getting is a heavy dose of disrespect. Fortunately for him, women are so accustomed to this type of abuse that the fight, for the most part, has been taken out of them. Similarly, even â€œenlightenedâ€ men are so desensitized by centuries of this verbal proliferation of dismissal that they do not notice it, let alone act upon it.
Black folk, well, they have not quite come around to â€œourâ€ way of thinking just yet. Say nigger in front of the wrong person, and you can absolutely count on dialing 911 for someone in the very near future. â€œEnlightenedâ€ people are also not so desensitized in this area, and will certainly, at the very least, speak out against such things.
So, in this case, the power of his words are defined by his audience, not by the words themselves. They have, depending on circumstance, the ability to intimidate and alienate, or the ability to avail him to the stitching services of a good doctor. I, personally would not call either of those â€œpowerfulâ€ in a positive sense, but, I prefer to use my powers for good, not evil… so my mind set may be a bit different than the person of whom we are speaking.
Of course, for him, either reaction puts him in the winners circle, when you evaluate the big picture. If the woman recoils, retreats, or acquiesces she is further solidifying the â€œchickâ€ stereotype he is advancing. If a man (or woman) of color lashes out against him, he, again, gets support in perpetuating the stereotype he is alleging. He may lose either battle, but in doing so, makes progress in the war.
As for the individual making these comments, I believe he was trying to fire a preventative shot across the bow. Trying to create an atmosphere where inferred commonalities create a state of mental cohesion and eliminate the need for actual discourse on the issues or qualifications surrounding the candidates he was attempting to dismiss. If you can get someone to quickly consent to your position by way of agreeing to an unrelated (and in this case invalid) sentiment, you can continue on with your conclusion unfettered (see â€œThe Patriot Actâ€ for a very effective example of this on a much larger scale).
It is unfortunate that, in the year 2008, we still are dealing with these nuances of bigotry in our everyday lives.
I do have reason for hope, because the general mood and disposition of the country is moving away from those expressed by this individual.
I do have reason for hope, because people like my friend will stand resolute in the face of this type of subtle violence and act without validating the stereotypes it seeks to reinforce.
I do have reason for hope, because we actually have a nigger and a chick running neck and neck to be the Democratic presidential candidate, and they both have a very legitimate chance of winning the November general election.
Those, would be words with power…