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Let’s All Intellectualize the “N” Word

July 18, 2008

Leon Walker is a TNTalk! writer. To find out more about Leon, check out our writers page.

The “N” word: are you kidding me? Are those people actually having what they believe are substantive discussions in our national media about who is, and who is not permitted to use the “N” word? There is also another camp out there that apparently believes it should never be used by anyone. Ever!

I don’t think this could ever be a question of propriety. And I don’t think there can be a sweeping indictment of those who chose to continue to use it. My opinion here does not cost anything and it’s worth the price. So it is not particularly important to me if you think me wrong. Because this is still America isn’t it? I’m not wrong about that am I?

I will resist my temptation to get on my historical soap box but I do invite you to recall that American thing about “free speech”. And by the way, that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” thing. That applies to you alone and your rights alone. If no laws are being broken, we don’t get to dictate what others say or do in America. That’s how we roll.

In my life I have experienced some curious and striking ambiguity with regard to race. Let me begin by sharing that I began my “unofficial” undergraduate studies on “race” began while attending two predominantly White Catholic Schools growing up. In my nearly exclusively Black neighborhood we referred to people only as Black or White and we had a single derogatory word that we used in reference to each race. I’m guessing I would have been in about fourth of fifth grade when I began to learn that there were actually many other ethnically specific derogatory tags. There were numerous ethnicities represented in my schools. Italians, Irishmen, Poles, Hispanics, Germans and a number of other eastern and central Europeans. Along with a few Blacks. Bottom line… they all have their “N” words too. All I will say further about this is that in Catholic School I learned an equal measure about both the godly and the ungodly.

In earned my “unofficial” graduate credential on “race” in our United States Navy. I have to say that it was an absolutely bizarre blessing. Not only were all of the aforementioned ethnic groups again represented they were my friends and brethren in a trail mix of Americana that I still periodically reflect upon and savor. I spent twenty years and twenty minutes in the Navy and I was fortunate to spend the first half of my career as an enlisted guy. As a young sailor I lived in a world where the sanctity and pride in the team or unit transcended all else. Make no mistake, the things we said among “just us” were light years beyond today’s universe of propriety. We casually used ethnically specific words and phrases that could only be described as ghastly! So much so, that if I related some of them today it would be shocking and scarcely believable. Recently and quite unexpectedly I was drawn back to that time while watching the new HBO Series “Generation Kill”. The interesting thing about this was that then, and today it has never mattered. Except to say that through it all, and experiences beyond, I learned to see the soul of a man. I know this because at sea and in conflicts and bench clearing brawls and at weddings and funerals, we were always one. For all of the potential faults, these experiences broadened my racial field of vision. My associations of today are appropriately reflective and I am eternally grateful for that.

I have a thorough grasp of the concepts of respect and propriety and the many other important even grave aspects of life. I know something about war first hand. I have many times seen, and I understand both death and danger. I know the difference between words and works. I understand that there can be a “huge” difference between lack of exposure, immaturity and ignorance versus racism or hate. One must also appreciate culture, including its influence or bias, when considering such matters.

I am fortunate to have never lived in a veritable “ethnic bubble” and I know quite a bit about people. The one common factor is that they are not perfect. I am compelled to make it clear that I do not condone or encourage hurtful or even insensitive “words” between people and I do not allow myself to be verbally victimized. But neither do I habitually or spontaneously leap forth to stand in judgment without invitation or good reason. Why? Because I do not always pretend to know from whence such comments come, nor how they are intended in full content and context. Let me say that again: “I do not always pretend to know from whence such comments come, nor how they are intended in full content and context.” Nor could I possibly understand what impulses, experiences and thoughts inspire words within another person. More importantly, experience has taught me that words however seemingly insensitive or misguided are not always the measure of the heart and soul within. Things are not always the way they seem.

Should anyone be remotely interested in my assessment of the current discussion on “that word”, I will say this first: “A loose tongue is not the same as a barrel of a gun.” So let’s all take a collective deep breath followed by a perspective pill. In my experience it pays to be continually watchful but you generally need not concern yourself with the obnoxious big mouth. Including those on talk radio or the network news. Why in the world would you overlook your positive ethnic experiences (nearly all of us must certainly have them) or devalue your own reasoning in favor of theirs?

We are just simply the result of our molded experiences and the associated emotional impacts. I had never understood or watched a round of golf in my entire life until Tiger Woods came along. So it took me until my forties to learn what a bogie and a birdie are. This suggests to me that “understanding and appreciation, present themselves when we present ourselves the opportunity to understand and appreciate.” And so it goes with race.

Sure the race discussion can compel us to squirm and scratch our heads sometimes. But I can tell you something we never have to scratch my heads about. We are all Americans. Yes, there are fools and hopeless intolerants out there, and they too are Americans. Rules are rules! So if you are inclined, when among the reasonably minded, the race discussion can be had. At the very least some level of understanding and appreciation may result. I have been fortunate enough to calmly have it and more than once. Yep me, the guy who decades past, received, and spewed “all of the worst words” like the good sailor I was. Now, clinging to no claim of perfection or political aspiration, I provide this admission without concern or remorse. Why? Because I still get the occasional Christmas card or phone card from some of those “multiethnic friends” from a time long ago. Speaking secretively of unspeakable times and places and reminding me that he once covered my butt, or laughing about the memory of the time I covered his. Most importantly, at the end of the day, I now know that it was never about what was said, and neither was it about race. Only opportunity and experiences yielding appreciation and understanding as measured by the ultimate instrument. Lifelong friendships.

America is like level 10 on the 3D computerized cultural chess game. And if you don’t know the rules it can drive you crazy. I typically get pretty involved in assessing and attempting to understand issues of national importance. And I have two preliminary litmus tests. First, I ask myself are any laws being broken or citizens being placed at risk. Secondly I consider weather my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are being jeopardized. And if the answers to the above questions are no, then I have a motto that I try to adhere to. “I don’t get it but I’m ok with it”. I seek to celebrate every citizen’s right to live their life according to their dreams and aspiration “and within their cultural and socioeconomic comfort level” and I welcome them as my American brethren. And if any American thinks that their interpretation of what is appropriate in another’s life, language, love, worship or culture will ever become the common national standard, I dare say they will be continually mired in disappointment. America is the ultimate cultural experiment.

I believe that in many aspects of life, the impressions we absorb and the marks we make on others are most clearly visible in our “actions” rather than anything else. So let me conclude by sharing a final bit of valued personal guidance that I received from my Grandmother: “If you want to know what a person is made of, don’t watch what they say, watch what they do”.

For me that is germane in both daily life and particularly in politics.

Watch what they do…

L. A. Walker, © Leon A. Walker

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 18, 2008 2:03 pm

    Tired of “good ol’ Jesse and his lame mouth?” Where does he get his support? Big companies support Jackson and his organization, Rainbow/PUSH Coalitions.

    Jesse Jackson’s corporate supporters are Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Boeing, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, Comcast, Ford, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, GE, PepsiCo and Shell. These companies make five and six figure donations.
    Every time you buy their products or do business with them, you are subsidizing this big mouth.

    Earlier this month, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac made major donations, even as they getting the meltdown!

    This situation will continue until there is a response by customers and shareholders. Tell these companies to stop supporting Jackson. You have the power to stop Jackson’s big mouth. Spread the word.

  2. thinking hard permalink
    July 18, 2008 9:10 am

    Life, liberty and happiness could be used to include the n word. However, the reaction of society has a way moderating such happiness through chastisement. Because of this, watching what you say while refusing to play the hypocrite card is a matter of reputation and personal pride. Better not to think the word than to loose the lips in a secret moment.

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