What’s Your Obsession With That Word, Whitey?
I’m white but I hope I’m not the whitey that I’m referring to in the title. Because, I’m calling that guy a name. But it’s fine. It only hurts a little to be called whitey. It can’t really take anything major away from me. Doesn’t even really hurt. It just itches a little. Not so much a bee sting as a mosquito bite.
In grade school, most of my friends were black. When we were kids on the basketball court, they would call each other the N-word. They would also call me the N-word. It was an honor to me at the time. It meant they loved me as much as they loved each other. It was an entry into a club. But as children, we didn’t fully understand the hundreds of years of meaning associated with that word. I would never presume that I was allowed to use that word now. Even though I am still friends (on Facebook, anyway) with some of the old gang. But we’ve all grown up. We (undoubtedly, them more than me) understand the power of that word. We understand that white people shouldn’t be tossing that one around.
However, there are a lot of white people who somehow equate names like whitey, cracker and the instantly comical and painless honky from 1978 to the horribleness that is the N-word. Much more qualified rhetors than I have already tackled the topic of why white people shouldn’t speak that word.
If you’re with me this far, you are probably willing to Google it yourself then return to read the rest of this. We’re all friends here, right?
Mine is not to debate whether white people should be using that word in conversation. If we have to discuss that, you and I should be hanging out and getting to know each other rather than reading each other's blog posts.
My issue is this: why do you have this obsession with that word? Why do you want to be allowed to say it? Do you see it as unfair because they get to say it if they want to? Is that really what concerns you? You can’t just let someone have something that is theirs and theirs alone? Is that OK? Can black people just have that one? It’s not that great a thing to have, in lieu of equality.
I never feel like I want to use that word. Oh wait—full disclosure: sometimes during that Kanye, Gold Digger song, I want to, and you know what, sometimes if I'm listening to it by myself, I do. I’m pretty sure that’s wrong… I think. So I apologize. Of course, I’m sure you know it’s not about the meaning of the word that makes me want to say it. It’s that it rhymes really well with “gold digger.” But you know what? If I had to promise right now to never ever, even in complete solitude and without an ounce of malice in my heart, ever ever sing along with Kanye during that part of that song again, because it’s not my word to use, (and I suspect someone will suggest this to me after reading this), I will promise that.
Is that unfair? No. It’s literally a non-issue. It’s not important to me that I be allowed to say that word.
Permission to use that word wouldn’t make me part of anyone’s family. It doesn’t give me street cred or membership into the White Guy That Black People Let Say the N-Word club. It doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not I am friends with a specific black person. It doesn’t make me any more welcome to any gatherings that are overwhelmingly peopled by black people. Being allowed to say that word isn’t going to solve racial inequities in this country.
Do you then find yourself wondering why so many black people still use the word amongst themselves but they won’t let you play? How about this: how about it’s just none of your business why they get to say that word amongst themselves if they choose to? Their reasons are their own. Just keep living and don’t worry about it. They’ve told you not to say it. So don’t.
So why do so many white people feel slighted by being criticized for using that word? Easy. Privilege. We’ve always been able to get away with doing whatever we want. We’re not good sports when it comes to losing, because, in this country, white people don’t have a lot of practice losing. So when someone tells us there’s a word we cannot say, some of us, the most nearsighted of us, the most self-centered of us, the most spoiled rotten of us, we flip out.
But let me slow you down, white people. No! Take a breath! Look at me in my eyes, whitey! It’s me, your cousin, whitey. I’m not trying to steal anything from you. Just calm down. You’re way too focused on wanting something that you shouldn’t want so badly. The fact that you want so badly to be allowed to say that word makes you look like you really really want it. That you really really want all the vitriol that it engenders and creates. You don’t really want that, do you? I mean, you’re cool with all people, right? Live and let live, right? Love your fellow man, right? Some of your best friends are black, right? I mean, that’s what you keep saying. So why oh why are you so worried about being allowed to say that word?
Try this: Just decide, no excuses, no exceptions—heck, I’ll even stop saying it during the Kanye song—that you will never say that word again. Just lock it into your brain. Additionally, see if your black friends like you any less when they notice you not saying that word. Keep a logbook if need be. I’m going to predict that your black friends will probably not treat you any differently. If they loved you before, they’re probably going to love you now. And if, mysteriously, you suddenly notice that some of your black friends actually are becoming a little warmer towards you, I’ll suggest to you that it is perhaps a side-effect of them realizing you don’t like that word anymore.
Try it. Also, for the next couple days, every time the urge rises within you to use that word, remember to ask yourself “Why do I want this?” What club do you think you’re joining?
By the way, all these years later, I’ve come to really covet being called one particular word by the men that were once my neighborhood friends when I was growing up. I am filled with love and gratitude when they call me brother. Maybe aspire toward that name.