Monday, January 11, 2010

The Other N Word

I'm sitting in my local coffee house answering some emails. About every second sentence I write is interrupted with a jolt from one of the baristas who is laughing out loud. Emphasis on the loud. He just happens to be a gay man (do I call him a baristo?) who has the loudest repetitive laugh I've ever heard. I've heard many, this one is clearly the most outrageous, the most obnoxious. Believe me when I tell you this laugh ranks up there with water-boarding.
Even Laura, one of his co-workers acknowledges, "Brian's laugh is just too big for this little coffeeshop." After a while, I go from irritated to curious. I marvel at how people respond. In Portland, people are unusually kind to one another. Oh , we have crime and assholes just like any other city, but for the most part, people are remarkably, noticeably, civil.
Aside from a few grimaces, people tolerate this assault on their sensibilities. Maybe it's a well calculated attempt to keep people from staying too long. It is a small space. Laptop users are known to outstay their welcome. I don't think so. This guy is fortunate in my book that so far nobody has asked him to be more aware of himself.
Likewise, Sen. Harry Reid astonishingly could have been more aware of himself in the now famous comment he made referring to President Obama being "light-skinned with no Negro dialect."
How fascinating that a politico (albeit from Nevada) still used the term Negro. The Republicans smell blood and are ripping the guy apart, even calling for his resignation. He committed no crime. If he is guilty of anything it's only that he's out of touch. Some would call that racially insensitive. But what the guy said, in it's entirety, is the truth. His choice of words could have been better, but only reflects how difficult it is for many people to talk about race. Fortunately some Black scholars and leaders are coming forward and "teaching" those who would learn that Reid's comments are not racist. That, in fact, skin color in the black community has always been currency. That speaking what some consider dialect free is an advantage. So the debate swirls. The pundits dissect and parse. Sen. Reid sits on the hot seat, endures sleepless nights, and considers the consequences of his poor choice of words. I like what Michael Eric Dyson, noted Black intellectual said recently. "Why do we have these discussions after a comment like this is made; why don't we have them because we need to have them. For the uninitiated, the evolution of what to call African-Americans has it's own fascinating history. We went from "people of color" on old slave posters, to "Nigra," to Negro to Colored, to Black, to African-American, to...guess what? People of color. Even very old organizations like the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund add another dimension to this discussion.
Malcolm X said it best when explaining why the word "Negro" should not be used. He explained that "Negro attaches you to nothing. It's like a tree without roots; there is no Negro land. People who do not know their history will destroy their history."
Time to build up.

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