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The New York Sun


Maintaining A Sense Of Self

December 01, 2006

By John H. McWhorter

The beginning of the holiday season seemed to be off to a good start for me.

But then Michael Richards, "Seinfeld's" Kramer, had to toss around the N-word at a comedy club when some black people in the audience heckled him. He even said something about lynching.

We have so much to be proud of: Frederick Douglass, Ida Wells, Scott Joplin (I recommend savoring his "Sugar Cane," better than "The Entertainer"), and Early Ellington (why doesn't anyone else love "Flaming Youth" as much as I do?). There was the civil rights revolution ’ how did they pull it off? We have really, really good food. There's Spike Lee's work.Yes, I am mesmerized by his films, even when they tell me things I don't like, and I can think of only three that I would consider flops.

We're so strong, we tell ourselves and everyone who'll listen."Proud Black Woman." "Black is Beautiful." "Once You've Had Black,You Never Go Back."

And yet we are taught that somehow, whenever someone utters a certain word or brings up certain subjects, all of the above is to be demoted to trivia, as we strong people go either to pieces or to the streets. And we have white America playing along: A modestly talented has-been says "nigger" at some comedy club somewhere, and it makes the headlines for the next couple of days.

My heart sank to see a composed, articulate black man who had been at Mr. Richards's performance telling CNN that Mr. Richards's language had "hurt" him. This only makes sense if this man, despite his poise and accomplishment, and despite the opportunity that post-civil rights America has offered him, does not truly feel equal to Mr. Richards or to white people in general. The only reason to be "hurt" by someone saying "nigger" in 2006 is if deep down, a part of you thinks you are one.

I, for one, however, am not hurt in the least by a white person expressing the sentiment that their color makes them better than me. After all, if such sentiments did hurt me, then it would mean that I had some doubts about myself, wouldn't it?

Otherwise, the natural response is to see the person as displaying their backwardness. And I mean natural. I have not painstakingly fashioned this response as a noble barrier to the eternal slings and arrows of racism. I process it this way as habitually as blowing on a spoonful of soup when it's hot.

Crucially, I do not see myself as possessing some bizarre quotient of fortitude when it comes to racial slurs. Where I differ from people when they hear the word nigger (or niggardly) is, I suspect, that I sincerely harbor no illusion that white people are better than me.

Someone else who didn't was James Weldon Johnson, a diplomat, a writer, and a NAACP head. He once wrote, "I will not let prejudice or any of its attendant humiliations and injustices bear me down to spiritual defeat," to which we all applaud. But there is, quite simply, no logical compatibility between concurring with Mr.Johnson and assailing Mr. Richards for causing the black community "pain."

To pretend otherwise is to present black weakness as black strength. We suppose that fussing about the N-word is part of being an informed, sophisticated black person, when in fact, it rather plainly indicates a damaged sense of self, especially when engaged in with such gusto and frequency. If anything has "hurt" me, it has been seeing this damage up close in so much of the response to Mr. Richards's statements.

Something else that "hurts" me just as much is the condescension and mendacity I feel from the mainstream press, convinced that black people require the coddling involved in pretending that when some clown says some sort of something, it is a savage attack. With staged earnestness, they follow Mr. Richards around as he stages incoherent and insincere apologies (of course, one of them would be to Jesse Jackson).

People who brandish the N-word as an insult should be condemned and dismissed as unsophisticated and behind the times, make no mistake. But the part about "pain" and the attendant "apologies" are histrionics ’ both idle and demeaning.

Centuries of slavery and segregation left more in their wake than sociologically inept comedians. They also had such a profound psychological impact on black America that even today, for a tragic number of black people, exaggerating the role of racism in their lives is the only way they know of feeling important.

"I know I've hurt them very deeply," Mr. Richards intoned on Mr.Jackson's radio show. Well, Mr. Richards, my sense of self remains intact, thank you very much. As to other black folks out there, if you did hurt them, it is the fact that they could be hurt by anything you said that hurts me.

Original Source:



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