Within the last few days, three women--let's be real here; three white women--publicly spewed the vilest, most hateful racial epithet in our dictionary, and they suffered for it.
First, Harley Barber, just a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Alabama, regurgitated the word 11 times in a video that lit up the Internet 10 days ago--after being recorded on the Rev's Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday. It, along with another racist video she inanely posted, got her expunged from the school and air-mailed back to her home in suburban New Jersey, just outside of Philadelphia.
Then, just a few days later, Natalia Martinez, an 18-year-old former freshman at Georgia State, was expelled after using the word on her Finsta page (I'd never heard of Finsta, either, until Barber spilled about it while telling everyone to "F--- off" and "buy my f---ing fur vest from Neiman Marcus, a marketing boost I am sure the chain appreciated.)
Finally, this week, Teddie Butcher became every parents' nightmare, at least most parents. She's now a former teacher at Hoover High School. She resigned on Wednesday, two days after walking into her food and nutrition classroom and yelling, "Turn the (that word) tunes off" at a student who was playing "Dear Mama" by Tupac. [Music was typically allowed in the classroom.]
"You have no right to use that word," one student told her amid the ensuing chaos, based on numerous videos circulating of the moment's aftermath.
The young student is right.
Dear white people: you have no right to use that word. Under any circumstances. Nowhere and to no one. Not even to your best black friend. No, especially, not to your best black friend.
Just don't use it. Ever.
My only exception might be if you are an actor and your character is, say, the aforementioned Connor; or one of the law enforcement officers who beat protesters to a pulp on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965; or, maybe, an evil youth berating lunch-counter sit-in protestors or young black students as they walk into places like Little Rock High School or the University of Alabama to destroy legalized, racial barriers.
In those instances, it would stilly for the character to yell: "You African American!"
So, unless you're working on a period film with Ava Duvernay, Quinton Tarantino or some other director, just don't say it. Period.
Now--and finally--saying the word has consequences. Real, potentially life-changing consequences, as the three aforementioned women learned.
Expelled. Withdrew. Resigned.
Who cares about the terminology. They're gone--all because you just can't use that word anymore.
Especially in the in the hateful, disrespectful, dismissive or care-free way it was used by Barber, Martinez, and Butcher. Girls, bye.
Maybe their punishments symbolize a progress too easily dismissed in these sensitive, quick-trigger times. That three institutions--UA, Georgia State and the Hoover City Schools, institutions that would not have likely, in a previous incarnation, acted so swiftly and forcefully in exorcising the perpetrators, should be praised.
Even if we think more can--and should--be done. (I'm still waiting to hear how, for instance, Barber's other friends in the video are being disciplined. And in Hoover, school superintendent Kathy Murphy would do well to convene a forum for all students, teachers and administrators and allow students to share their views on what the word still matters and how the school can grow from the incident.)
In the wake of those incidents, a few (presumably) white readers reached out to me with this argument:
Black people say it all the time but when a white person says it, they're racist!
Or some variation.
So, here's my response:
My old-school self doesn't like to hear the word at all. My two children certainly know it.
When my son was a teenager, I once learned he was using the word within his own social circles--a part of great parenting is having spies, another set of eyes who see what you can't.
I confronted him and made it clear its usage was not acceptable, even made him re-watch Eyes on the Prize, the award-winning civil-rights documentary, just to be sure he knew the pain of the word. [Now, I'm not so naive to think he never used the word again, though I know he did not use it around me or my "spies".]
And when I ride in the car with my daughter she makes sure to play the "clean" versions of her playlists.
All that said, I know the word has been culturally appropriated--or diffused--by its incessant use by a generation that may have not personally felt its hateful sting.
It's still widely used by African-American entertainers and artists--and has been for generations.
I confess that I laughed at Richard Pryor when he told jokes using the word decades ago, and when other black comedians did the same--almost as if by laughing at the word, it hurt just a little bit less.
I also sang out loud a song by one of my favorite groups, Sly & the Family Stone: "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey", which came out in the Spring of 1969. I was just 13.
The lyrics are simple:
Don't call me nigga, whitey Don't call me whitey, nigga
That was it. Over and over, save for the bridge, which went like this:
Well, I went down across the country And I heard two voices ring They were talkin' funky to each other And neither other could change a thing