(Opinion) Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the University of Virginia during the MLK Celebration in 2015. 

Dear Editor of the Collegiate Times,

On April 16, the Collegiate Times published a deeply flawed and misleading opinions piece entitled “Society’s use of the N-word demonstrates hypocrisy,” by Mackenzie Gleysteen. She argues, among other things, that the intention behind white Americans’ use of racial slurs matters more than the social impact of the slur, that Black people are largely responsible for the continued use of the N-word and that Black people should take responsibility for educating their non-Black community members.

Below, we deconstruct the five main arguments of the original piece and invite readers to engage critically with campus discourse about race and the topic of slur reclamation. In doing so, we will often refer to the N-word as “the slur,” and we capitalize the B in “Black” to acknowledge the unique political and cultural aspects of Blackness in the United States.

Argument No. 1: Racial slurs develop new meanings over time and, regardless, the context of the slur matters most.

Using the words “hypocritical” and “double standard” to describe Black Americans’ use of the slur requires assuming that Black and white people share an identical American experience which, as Gleysteen specifically mentions in the first paragraph, does not reflect a historical or social reality. Gleysteen focuses only on the intent of the speaker when the impact and context of the slur plays an equally if not significantly more important role.

In fact, Gleysteen believes one should “consider the context” in which the slur is used; however, Gleysteen only focuses on the individual aspect of context and fails to account for the historical aspect. For instance, by saying that “over time the word has re-emerged and is used with a different meaning by the descendants of the very people who had to endure the cruel term decades before,” Gleysteen both implies that the slur disappeared and that the undefined “descendants” did not have to endure the slur themselves. The slur never disappeared. Black students on our campus today “endure” the slur used against them in the same violent way that the author reserves simply for the far-right and neo-Nazis.

The slur has always been a tool of white oppression over Black bodies. White people cannot separate themselves from this context and its impact when they use this slur, regardless of their intent. However, Black people, like other marginalized groups, can attempt to reclaim the word to build community, acknowledge a shared experience or strip the slur of its power.

Critical race theory (CRT) provides a framework for understanding race in the United States and represents an academic response to the civil rights movement. Lawyer, activist, professor and CRT founding theorist Derrick Bell claims that social change does not occur as a result of altruism (read: good intentions), but rather when circumstances which benefit those in power converge with circumstances that benefit marginalized groups. “Good intentions” are close to irrelevant when such a power imbalance exists.

Argument No. 2: Ta-Nehisi Coates’ line of reasoning is “immature” and society should focus on achieving “a level playing field for all, rather than treating people differently for the pigmentation of their skin.”

The notion of Coates’ reasoning as “immature” compares to white Americans singing the tune of “All Lives Matter” and “Why are we focusing so much on racism when we could be focusing on getting along?” without doing any of the work necessary to actually create sustainable, institutional change. Gleysteen disembodies Coates from his scholarship by failing to provide a reason as to why his argument is “immature” and making an infantilizing playground analogy instead. Gleysteen misses the critical first step of moving toward a constructive conversation by failing to engage with the voices of oppressed groups and the validity of their experiences. This country and university cannot move toward a “level playing field” without first acknowledging the unevenness of said playing field.

Coates implies that the discomfort and frustration white Americans feel when they are barred from owning something is a novel experience for white Americans. White Americans continue to collectively operate under the assumption that every human begins at an equal starting point, uninfluenced by our born and socialized identities and our environment. However, readers should consider the power dynamics between racial groups in the early United States, and how those power dynamics continue today in housing policiessocioeconomics, schools, the criminal justice system and public health.

Again, Gleysteen emphasizes the importance of context (read: intent), but continues to argue that a slur historically directed toward Black Americans by white Americans is acceptable because white Americans do not have malintent. This argument fails to account for the complete context (beyond simply “intent”) of the slur. As a result, Gleysteen misses Coates’ reasoning for white Americans’ frustration at not being able to use the slur and is unable to critically engage with his viewpoint.

Argument No. 3: The song “Freaky Friday” addresses the slur’s controversy in its lyrics in a meta-cognitive, comical manner.

Unfortunately, acknowledging the controversial nature of a slur does not in itself excuse its use by non-Black students, nor remove the slur from its historical and social context (read: impact).

Argument No. 4: Black people are largely responsible for the continued use of the N-word and thus black people, particularly black rappers, must change.

First, the slur never disappeared (see response to Argument No. 1) and therefore, Black people cannot be responsible for its continued usage. Second, even though Black people use the word, there are a wide range of reasons why individual Black Americans choose to do so. Roediger’s “Working Toward Whiteness” (2005) explains the four main avenues that targeted groups may use in response to a slur: 1) the targeted group may embrace the slur, 2) the targeted group may use the slur against other targeted groups, 3) the targeted group may use the slur to strengthen connections with other targeted groups and 4) the targeted group may campaign against the slur.

There are, of course, Black Americans who could not care less about white Americans’ usage of the slur. There are Black Americans who may welcome white usage of the slur. This is OK; after all, “Black Americans” are not one monolithic group with a set agenda. A whole community cannot make a sudden, concretely united decision to choose one of these four avenues, and thus every individual member of a targeted group may have a different idea of the best way to negotiate a slur’s usage: to reclaim the slur, to reject the slur, etc.

Ultimately, however, none of these choices make Black people responsible for the continued use of the slur because it has neverbeen applied equally to Black and white Americans. The slur has always existed as a tool of power and oppression, invariably by white Americans against Black Americans. Gleysteen argues, “if the Black community really wants to see the change in others, then the Black community needs to make a change too.” This argument has been used for decades to justify violence against Black bodies and serves to emphasize the systemic oppression the Black community faces. The Black community is required to be the paragon of virtue in order to “earn” their basic human rights and the same level of respect that white Americans are given freely.

The Black community has a right to reclaim this word in order to take power away from their oppressors and undermine the toxic power of that word by claiming ownership of it. Non-Black Americans have no right to police Black Americans’ reclamation of a word derived from centuries of white-over-Black enslavement and institutionalized oppression. Such policing of slur reclamation absolves the dominant, privileged group of responsibility and places blame on the backs of Black bodies.

Argument No. 5: Black people and other minority groups should “educate” the Virginia Tech community and should take responsibility for the Black community’s use of the slur.

Gleysteen writes, “While HokiePRIDE argues that it is inappropriate for the responsibility to be put on minority groups to educate people, I disagree. We need minorities and the majority to come together to help educate people and advocate for themselves.” Face-to-face conversations with people of color have a place. Members of marginalized communities on campus have created spaces, conversations and resources, but that does not mean it is the job of these communities to play the perpetual role of educator. White Virginia Tech students have no excuse for arriving to the discussion unprepared, oblivious and expecting marginalized Virginia Tech students to instantly educate them on critical race theory and linguistics. Gleysteen’s choice to acknowledge HokiePRIDE’s statement instead of acknowledging the statements made by the Black Organizations Council, the NAACP or the Black Graduate Student Organization reads as a failure to take advantage of said resources.

Beyond student-provided resources, quantitative and qualitative research already exists en masse for anyone with access to the internet and/or a library. Students can read Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks, Michelle Alexander, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Students can take ENGL/RLCL/SOC 3144 (Language and Ethnicity) or PSCI 3255 (The Politics of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender). Students can follow prominent activists on Twitter. Students can find speeches on YouTube and documentaries such as “Talking Black in America” or “13th.” Students can Google Chicana feminism, Black womanism and indigenous writers.

White America asks Black Americans to become instant educators, social scientists and motivational speakers, but Black writers and activists have been at work for centuries. White Americans must quickly learn to channel their “good intentions” into locating already documented research and lived experiences instead of asking a random Black student or community member to engage in exhausting, repetitive emotional labor.

Just as many Black Americans have inherited the centuries-deep burden of institutionalized racial oppression — present in the housing market, in schools, in law enforcement, in the criminal justice system and in public health — without consent, white Americans have inherited the corresponding obligation to do no more harm. Non-Black Americans must be subjected to the social and institutional repercussions of using the charged racial slur, and furthermore must not police Black Americans’ use or disuse of the word.

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