I am promoting a comment on the previous post to front page. It’s very worth your while to read the whole thing.
Here’s what I wonder. And I don’t really care about your stupid ugly neighbors who sound awful, because who cares, they’ll get theirs in 10 years when Goldman Sachs gives them smaller-than-expected bonuses. But what I wonder is, will there be a time, or could there be a context, in which casual use of the N-word (or potentially but probably not some other racial slur) is more indicative (or more likely to be indicative) of stupidity and a general inability to practice or experience empathy than it is indicative of racism? More than with most words, context is crucial to determining the meaning, and therefore the potential racist content, of “the N-word” [henceforth, for ease of conversation, “Taffy”]. Watch how much context matters:
1.Jay-Z, whilst rapping
Basically always fine to say Taffy. Can refer to self or others as Taffy. Almost no one has a problem with this;
2. Paul Mooney, pre-Michael Richards
Basically always makes white people cringe and black people laugh/chuckle in agreement when discussing/saying Taffy;
3. Michael Richards, all contexts
Shouldn’t discuss taffy, salt, candies or any chewy substances whatsoever. [Ed. No further extensions of the metaphor will be included in the below text]
Kramer is obviously racist. His eruption of anger and disdain was truly frightening, and he’s not that good of an actor. Not stupid. Racist. So no direct relationship to my stupid v. racist question. However, I think the reason Paul Mooney decided to eliminate “Taffy” from his vocabulary (which, for those too lazy to click through, was a decision “inspired” by Kramer’s outburst, and represents no small change of habit for Mr. Mooney) has a lot to do with that question.
That said, I’m not actually interested in the facts of why Paul stopped saying “Taffy”. (He has spoken frequently on the subject if you are interested.) (Be interested.) Instead, I’m more interested in speculation. Why would one like Paul Mooney, who has prodigiously used (and defended his use of) “Taffy”, be interested in stopping everyone from ever saying it?. And why was Michael Richards the straw that broke the camel’s back?
I think the answer has a lot to do with math, specifically probability. But before we break out the abacus and answer the riddle, I think it is important to explore how Kramer’s outburst may have differed in meaning from the late night conversations of the deformed neighbors. And since Kramer is old, and the awful neighbors are apparently in school and so likely are young, I’d like to submit the below plausible rough sketch of how “Taffy” might mean different things to people of different generations.
Era 1: QUITE A WHILE AGO MAYBE
The situation is: Most/many/all whites say “taffy” in reference to blacks. The vast majority of whites feel/act as if blacks were inferior (making them white supremacists [a type of racist]).
The racist content of a white’s utterance of “Taffy” in this context is: Ambiguous
Use of the word “Taffy” is not a particularly useful indicator of racism in whites in this context. As all/many/most whites feel superior to blacks, white skin is the most reliable and useful indicator of someone having white supremacist feelings, not their use of any particular word or phrase. As most everything said by whites regarding blacks reveals white supremacist feelings, it is not clear that use of the word “Taffy” by whites would indicate unique or unusually intense racism.
Era 2: LESS LONG AGO AND NOT YET NOW
The situation is: Fewer whites say the word “Taffy” in reference to blacks. Overt expressions of white supremacist feelings are increasingly taboo. Nevertheless, all of society’s cultural capital and all cultural cache remains firmly in white hands, save for a chance casting decision here and there.
Blacks begin to use say “Taffy” in reference to other blacks. This is not taken as indicative of self-loathing.
The racist content of a white utterance of “Taffy” in the context is: Very, obviously, and unsophisticatedly racist
Overt expression of a white supremacist ideology is no longer acceptable in polite company, and use of the word “Taffy” to refer to blacks is no longer a pervasive colloquialism amongst whites. Previously (in QUITE A WHILE AGO MAYBE), it would have been an intentional decision for a white not to use “Taffy” to refer to blacks. Now, however, it usually requires an intentional decision for a white [i[to use the word. Popular culture and the cultural/political elite largely discontinue and frown upon use of the word “Taffy”. This is called “political correctness,” and is interpreted as censorship by those whites who resent that they are no longer encouraged to publicly communicate white supremacist ideology Many of these whites continue to use the word “Taffy” to refer to blacks whenever they think it safe to do so. Evil and shrewd political operations court this very large subset of whites (concentrated in the South) by repeating boilerplate platitudes
that, in the right context,
silently signal white supremacist sympathies to those whites tuned to hear such messages. With mainstream access denied to those racists who use the word “Taffy,” white racists wishing to remain active in public life, or even those simply self-aware enough to care about the impression they make on others, resort to these dog-whistle techniques to communicate in public.
As fewer and fewer whites use the word “Taffy” in any context, use of the word becomes common in many different contexts amongst blacks. The word is reclaimed by blacks in many different contexts as a term of self-identification. This continuing reclamation project will have a profound impact on the future meaning(s) of the word “Taffy.” Regarding what “Taffy” means when uttered by a white, the most relevant reclamations will come from black-created media. Particularly influential in the long-term will be the reclamation that emerges from new musical genre pioneered by American blacks. But in the short-term, the effect will be more ambiguous, as most whites will remain very afraid of these particular blacks and their contemporaries.
Finally, we arrive back in…
Era 3: NOW-ISH
Everything seems complicated. Some whites (awful hicks) continue to use the term “Taffy” in a hateful manner when they feel safe to do so. Other whites (especially the ones who “Tweet”) will have grown up in a world where much of the cultural elite is black. The popular music that the Tweeting whites (and even many of the awful hicks) listen to is largely rap, a genre invented by blacks that was not immediately co-opted by derivative white artists. Whites are now fans of music that was not (originally) for them or by them.
For the first time in our country, large swaths of white America became interested in the “private” conversations of blacks. And these “private conversations” (in the form of music created by blacks and tailored to a black audience) used the word “Taffy.” A lot. In myriad ways, none of which communicated white supremacist ideology. And considering the economic opportunity Tweeting whites presented black musicians, no one had an incentive to enforce the “privacy” of these particular conversations. The “for and by blacks-ness” of the music ends up as a style, not a statement, and certainly not a barrier to consumption.
So now certain whites all of the sudden have a new influence on the context to their relationship to the word “Taffy”: enjoyment of a certain (and increasingly pervasive) style of music. Also Chris Rock and Jackie Robinson mattered probably. But anyways, the point is that there is no direct relationship between long-term exposure to Ja-Rule and a progressive/anti-racist/non-racist/moral disposition towards blacks. [If anything, long term exposure to Ja-Rule might cause….no, nevermind, not doing that.]
The upshot is that a group of whites, diverse in its racial ideology, has a common and non-racist new context in which to understand and hear the word “Taffy.” Rap begs to be rapped, so whites are almost induced to saying “Taffy” when singing along to their favorite songs. And when a white listens to a song performed by a black artist that includes the word “Taffy”, is there an obvious moral distinction to be made between:
(a) the listener hearing the word;
(b) uttering the word silently in one’s head;
(c) uttering it out-loud while alone; and
(d) and uttering it out loud in the presence of others?
Others have made a convincing case that, in fact yes, there is a moral distinction to be made there. And I agree with them. Whole-heartedly. But I would say it isn’t an exceptionally obvious moral distinction. Which means that it is the type of moral distinction that stupid people will not make. Not because they are racist, but because they are stupid, and they just generally don’t make difficult and nuanced moral distinctions. They lack the mental capabilities, and they lack the knowledge. They do not know, as the Paul Mooney of my imagination knows, that probability is at play here. Blacks are no longer speaking to an all-black audience, so the more times a black musician or comedian says “Taffy,” the more times it is heard by whites, and the more times it is repeated in whites’ heads, and the more times it is uttered out loud while alone, and the more times it is uttered out loud in the presence of others, and the more likely it is that callous idiots are going to be tossing around “Taffy” casually at 4am, because they are too stupid to understand what their drug-addled wanna-be-cool late-night shouts do to the psyche of a black person who might overhear them (that’s your second chance to listen to the Wale song – take it).