Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Redneck Mystique #5

Recently in honor of Black History Month, New York City Council member Leroy Comrie put forth a “measure” (not sure what that is legally … it’s not a law, probably more a resolution that holds no weight) for New Yorkers to voluntarily stop using “the N Word.” A lot of people misread the measure to mean a legal banning of the word, as if you’d be fined or ticketed for using it. (In New York, this would mean millions of black and hispanic teenagers running up four-figure amounts in fines.)

On surface, it’s an asinine thing. Un-American. The reason so many people hate political correctness, which is the antithesis of liberalism. We should be kicking the doors open, allowing people to say anything they want, however dumb or disagreeable, rather than instructing them on words they shouldn’t use. To pass legislation banning certain words is borderline fascism.

Beneath the surface, it’s just a public official putting the concept out there for discussion, knowing full well people of all races will go on using the word “nigger” as much as they want, but hopefully planting the kernel of doubt when a person utters it, that there are people like him who are dog tired of hearing the word, who take it personally, whatever the intent.

I don’t think a lot of people outside New York recognize that this measure is aimed more at black people than anyone else, to get them to stop using the word, because people like Comrie wisely recognize “nigger” isn’t a magic word that only certain people are allowed to use, that there truly is no double-standard. A lot of black people think there is (that it’s all right if they use it, but no one else is allowed to use it), but there are no magic words that only certain people are allowed to use. You don’t mean harm by using it? It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t mean. The word goes out there, other people hear this, they interpret it however they want, and that empowers them to use it, in ways that do and don’t mean harm. You can’t control what other people say, much less the intent they place behind their words. Failure to recognize this results in unentitled people believing they’re entitled, i.e., a profound lie is created that ultimately does no one any good.

That got me thinking about Jeff Foxworthy and his lucrative “You know you’re a ‘redneck’ if …” comedy routines. Some of these riffs can be pretty funny. Not a big fan of Foxworthy myself, but I can appreciate his angle on the topic. It’s not just a white thing. Chris Rock never did a “you know you’re a 'nigger' if …” routine, but his routines from a few years ago exploited the same mildly-shocking concept: that a member of a given race or ethnic group can get away with saying forbidden, funny and/or horrible things about his given group, and the audience, whatever its racial/ethnic make-up, may laugh along as they recognize unfortunate grains of truth in the humor. (The difference is Rock could do a “you know you’re a ‘redneck’ if” routine and get big laughs; I suspect Foxworthy doing “you know you’re a ‘nigger’ if” routine would be met with stone silence, at best.)

Why is it that there’ll never be a “measure” by concerned city council members to ban the word "redneck" … if I referred to it as “The R Word” would anyone even know what I was talking about? I don’t ask that as a baited question. On the contrary, I’m relieved that this will never happen. It took me awhile to find my way around to this way of thinking, but I can see that it’s much better for people to feel total freedom to use the word redneck, especially when they mean it as a non-humorous insult.

Rural working-class whites who harp about double standards when it comes to word like “cracker” or “redneck” are missing the point. As noted above, people are always going to think and say whatever they want … or at least I hope our country legally allows them the right to always do so. You can’t control this, nor should you want to. People who constantly harp about ‘crackers’ or ‘rednecks’ are playing their hand – they’re letting everyone know they openly despise working-class white folks, and they feel totally free and right in using the words. (If you peel away the layers of liberal mind games, you’ll generally find these folks pre-suppose that the “rednecks and crackers” they openly condemn are far more stupid and close-minded than they’ll ever be … which is kind of strange, given the context of their assumption.)

When people let you know how they feel about you, especially if it’s negative, they’ve just empowered you. They’ve let you know that in some way, you’ve either offended or frightened them, simply by being who you are, that they feel a need to openly denigrate you. I wouldn’t necessarily call it fear, although that may be part of it – it’s just as much hatred. They don’t know how you feel about them. Maybe it’s all some warped bait-and-switch game, that they hope by antagonizing you with a slur, you’ll show your hand and prove yourself to be just as dumb and mean-spirited as they are? I don’t know. Generally, when people pick fights, there are plenty of reasons for this that aren’t readily apparent … and some people just like to fight.

Why the vast gulf between “redneck/nigger” in terms of societal acceptance? Slavery? Civil rights? I’ll go for both reasons. Because if you look at living conditions and economic opportunities between rural working-class whites and their black urban and rural counterparts today, you’re not going to see many differences. You need some recent (and by recent, I mean past 200 years) historical context to attach real gravity to using the word “nigger” – a gravity that doesn’t necessarily exist for the word “redneck.” Al Sharpton recently got the shock of his life when he found Strom Thurmond’s relatives once owned his relatives. Why the shock? If you’re an African American, chances are extremely good some rich white folks once owned your ancestors. A horrible thing to discover, for sure, but to be shocked by it? Pissed-off by it is a more logical reaction … and accepting it as a strange-but-true part of your past should be the end result.

Do you think Strom Thurmond, or any other historically well-off southern white folks, are crippled in shame knowing their ancestors owned slaves? The reality is there’s not a damn thing they can do about their ancestors, whether they wish that past would disappear or return. There are probably a lot of white southerners in this boat, whether their families still have money or not. (And you better believe a lot of wealthy white southerners lost their fortunes in the Civil War and the following reconstruction.) There are far more white southerners who never owned slaves, were more likely placed in the impossible role of sharecroppers trying to compete financially with slaves, which is probably the root for a lot of misguided anger and resentment that still exists today. And there are even more white northerners who never had anything to do with this mess, save we might have lost a few family members on the Union side of the Civil War.

What to make of all that? I’d recommend that poor white and black folks recognize they have a lot more in common than they’re led to believe. But it seems like that’s been forfeited for a surly, vague disdain between each that doesn’t do either group any good. Without that historical context, I place people using words like “nigger” and “redneck” in the same boat: they mean to insult people they perceive to be somehow inferior to them. The words are equal in that context. Recent history, i.e., slavery, makes the word “nigger” (the “N word” … say that, and everyone knows you mean that magic word) much more degrading than the word “redneck.” Because most "rednecks" weren’t slaves and living in an ass-backwards pre-Civil Rights America. (The history of indentured servitude in America is pretty interesting, but if you’re shaking your head right now and wondering what I’m talking about, let’s skip this.)

And, of course, where there’s such hatred, there’s room for humor, albeit it has to be done carefully, and usually with a knowing wink and nod. Chris Rock did it well. However he’d handle a white fan telling him how much he enjoyed his “difference between black people and ‘niggers’” routine, he’d be wise to just say thanks, because what he’s really being told is a white person respects him for his intelligence and candor. (How that white fan uses the humor, derisively or carefully, is none of Rock’s business.) Would Jeff Foxworthy even have any black fans? The few times I’ve seen his specials, the audience looks 100% white. But I suspect he’d have no problem with a black person professing his love for his “you know you’re a ‘redneck’ if” riffs.

What to make of all this mess? Nothing. It’s been troubling people for years, and will go on troubling them years from now. I think a lot of people are simply afraid to get into it, lest they think other people will find them racist in some sense for not trumpeting some meaningless “we’re all brothers” malarkey. Again, no controlling what other people think. And if you’re smart, you wouldn’t want to. You’re going to have a hard enough time controlling your own damn thoughts. My take is just to roll with life, realize sometimes you’re going to do or say some regrettable things, and most times, you’re going to do profoundly right things without even being aware of them, which will mean a lot more in the context of people getting along. I can’t blame Leroy Comrie for wanting to cut more bullshit out of his life. And I don’t think he believes his “measure” is anything but one man recognizing the difference between influence and control.

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