by Jason Edwards
Did you hear that Gwyneth Paltrow used the N word? Yeah, me neither. (Lame-stream media!) Actually, I did hear about it, but only after a friend told me—a friend who happens to be black. Seems Gwyneth was in Paris with her friends Jay Z and Kanye West, attending a concert on their Watch the Throne tour. Know what’s the most popular song from the album the tour promotes? Gwyneth does—which is why she tweeted a picture she took and said “Ni**as in Paris for real.” (Asterisks hers.) What a vile racist she is, straight out of the KKK, amiright?
When I heard about this I went straight to the internet to find out more. Most of the websites I found that talked about what she did were geared towards black culture. And the debate I saw in the comments seemed to come down to this: whether Jigga and Ye should have even called the song that all.
Here’s the thing: you can say nigger, if you want to. I don’t even think you have to worry about physical violence if you choose to use the word, in whatever context. If you’re in a situation when saying it gets you beat up, you were probably in a fairly volatile situation to begin with. So say nigger if you want to.
You will offend people when you say it, rest assured. And it doesn’t matter if they’re justified in their outrage. People get offended for all kinds of reasons, good or bad. I know people who think calling a Jewish person a “Jew” is offensive. In Michigan, a state legislator was banned from the house floor for using the word “vagina.” Personally, I can’t stand the B word—I hate hearing it, and I hate myself when I say it even in a spirit of irony or satire. So say nigger if you want, but it will make people mad.
Do you care? Because that’s what this comes down to. It’s about respect—not respect for black culture, or respect for decorum, or even respect for the person you’re talking to. It comes down to respect for language.
In some circumstances—playing around with your friends—you may not need to choose your words carefully. Except for a strictly factual exchange, most of the talking you do with your friends is just taste and texture adding layers of intimacy to your camaraderie. You can say whatever you want, because they already know you. That’s what Gwyneth (thought she) did.
In other circumstances, you are using language as the sole means by which to connect to another person. There’s no emotional connection, no shared history, no mutually accepted terms and conditions. There is only the socially understood meaning and usage of words. And that’s what Gwyneth did when she tweeted to millions of people she doesn’t know. They had to take the use of the word at face value. For some people, that “value” was the irony of life imitating art, her friends in Paris.
For other people, that “value” was a white person using the N word. They felt she was being disrespectful… well of course she was. Or, to be more precise, she was not making an effort to be respectful. Most of what comes out of her mouth—and out of everyone’s mouth—is said without any effort at all.
And this sort of thing happens all the time. Personally, when I write—blogs, stories, tweets, Facebook updates—I go back over my words and make sure I’ve chosen them carefully. And I don’t much care for what I read when other writers are obviously not making the same effort. The thing of it is, the N word is unique in that it—usually—flags when a person talks without thinking; that it’s “offensive” is immaterial. This goes for whoever uses it, in whatever context- whether it’s blacks talking to blacks, or whites talking to whites, or any combination thereof.
Of course, sometimes the word is used very deliberately. In those instances, however, the reason to use it outweighs the social invective against it—and while you may not respect that decision, at least allow that language, as a tool, was given due respect. I’m not trying to give Gwyneth Paltrow a pass—it’s not my place to do so. But when it comes to using language, no one gets to tell anyone else what they can or can’t say.