“Post-racial America” is one of those new buzz words that elicits a variety of reactions from my black friends—from chuckles to expletives to outcries of “propaganda!” One woman friend said “If America were post-racial, they’d let the Prez do his job; all you have to do is look at the ethnic makeup of the Obama haters!” She has a point. Since Obama took office, the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified more than a thousand new hate groups in their quarterly reports.
When we decided to add spoken word and the performance arts to “Words and Violence,” we knew that hip hop had to be part of the conversation. And we also knew we would encounter the N-word and its slang derivatives. So we apologize up front to anybody who is offended by the use of the word.
There is some hip hop which offends people and those who find its language objectionable. We understand. But hip hop is not homogenous and not all African Americans like it. It’s not all violent, misogynistic, homophobic or covertly anti-white. There are some independent rappers and hip hop artists who are using the genre to accomplish remarkable work in social justice and political activism. They are not usually names you would recognize but are a divergent group of “Indie hip hop” performers who are independent of the mainstream and considered “underground” artists. Hip Hop is a culture that requests revolution and evolution that numbers in the hundreds of millions and spans the globe. Many of these artists are anti- violence, anti-misogynist, anti-rape culture and they engage in community activism through their art.
I didn’t like hip hop until recently when I discovered this underground movement. I didn’t like the N-word, the B-word or the violent images. But I like the values of the Indie underground—respect and solidarity. I still don’t like the N-word and avoid using it verbally. I don’t write it either, unless it is in the context of an author, journalist or historical research. I have used it in a poem and as a spoken word artist myself, it was difficult to let it come out of my mouth even in that context and venue. I believe it disrespectful and feel a tightness in my stomach whenever I hear it used. When it leaves the lips of a white person, it is racist—period. And it should be called out. (I figure who is going to attack a way-middle aged white women and in particular someone privileged to use the title Reverend when it suits her purpose?)
Yes, there are terms that come out of the hip hop culture that some find offensive but they are not used randomly but have innate purpose. (For more information please see the article “Hip Hop and Rap as Art, as An Agent for Change for Social Justice and Political Reform) It must be noted that a substantial composite of African Americans find all of those terms offensive.
I am long past my white guilt because, a lifelong activist, I participated in the civil rights movement and in frequent non-violent civil disobedience and direct action—and still do, but I still feel a sadness when I hear the N-word being used. I can’t help it. The sadness is that civil rights and human rights are still in question in America and in the world and words used to marginalize, insult, hurt or harm are part of the guerilla-decontextualization that the poet and author Aberjhani speaks about in his work. Guerilla-decontextualization is the tearing down of someone or something for malicious and destructive purposes. It’s not the prettiest part of human nature. My shame is not because I’m white, nor is it singular; it’s for the ignorance and the denial of our personal and collective responsibility for a hand in our own evolution that brought us to a place where there is a need for these artists at all.
~ Barbara Kaufmann 2013
For more information about how language and prejudice, see An Overview of the Language of Prejudice by Debra and Rachel Schaffer, Professors of English at Montana State University Billings.