The English language has more than 170 thousand words, but not a few young people use less than a hundred. Some become influencers (is there a word more naive than this?) and pose as rebels, making fun of other poor people like them or showing off that they have a lot of money. It is difficult to find any teenager who does not know and admire them.
Not a few think and speak like these cultural heroes, that is, with five-word sentences, all preceded by (1) the “F-word”, (2) the “B-word”, and close by (3) the “N-word”. The other two middle words are chosen from a shorter menu than McDonald’s.
Intoxicated with this sexist and racist language, one day I lost patience and said to one of these young people:
“Why don’t you go with all that racism somewhere else?”
The young people looked at me and laughed until they showed their wisdom teeth.
“What racism are you talking about?”
“Each sentence is closed with the N-word and always as an insult.”
“It’s not racism! We are black and we can say it.”
Very predictable. I had heard this argument a thousand times.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re black, white, or yellow. Your use of it is profoundly racist.”
“You just don’t understand American culture!” one of them said, probably noticing that my accent wasn’t from there.
“You, neither. That’s why you reproduce it.”
It’s not the word. There are no bad words. It is the use and manipulation of language that later manipulates us. It is the corruption of language that corrupts us with extreme efficiency.
In the heroic years of the Civil Rights Movement, giants like Martin Luther King, Mohammed Ali, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin always used it with that courage that has (strategically) been lost. At the same time that the “N-word” has been made a taboo, it has been used more and more to degrade black people, not by white racists but by their own victims. It is one thing for someone to affectionately call a person he loves N*** (even “bitch”; each one with his or her private fantasies) and quite another to use it systematically as a demeaning resource. Nothing new: the idea that a black person is worth three-fifths of a white in electoral terms (in the Constitution for a century) and the idea of sending free blacks back to Africa were supported by many anti-racist advocates.
Years ago, in a library, I heard a father call his six or seven-year-old son “N**r” because the boy didn’t understand a math problem. What is more effective in transmitting racism than a father denigrating his son because of his color? The message is clear: if you are not intelligent you are black; and vice versa. Says who loves you and protects you. Not even a Neo Nazi arguing for white supremacy or a forgetful patriot waving the Confederate flag could accomplish so much for the racist cause.
In the same way, who have been, for centuries, the most effective channel for the transmission and perpetuation of machismo, if not mothers? Historically, it has been women who have served as reproducers of this historical calamity. It would suffice to recall the venerated Saint Teresa and nowadays a few fashionable senators.
Being a woman does not immunize anyone against machismo, just as being black does not immunize anyone against racism and even against white supremacist racism. In the same way, it does not matter if someone is a working poor: classism in favor of those above has historically been reproduced by the servants below. It doesn’t matter if individuals are good or bad. They are the perfect transmitters of the master’s values, of hegemonic power.
What is more effective for the transmission and perpetuation of classism that venerates millionaires for being responsible for the order and progress of societies, than the workers themselves who defend them as their gods? Were there few slaves who defended their masters because of the food they received and the rags they wore? What better than a slave, a woman, and an employee to defend the interests and morals of slave owners, machismo, and plutocracies?
Wasn’t it the wicked genius of Edward Bernays who discovered that propaganda is only effective when you get others to say what we want to say? Were not the slaves of Ancient Rome called “addicts” because they said (dico), they spoke for their masters?
But power leaves no rift unfilled, and when small areas of criticism show up, it gets nervous. In Chicago recently, high school teacher Mary DeVoto lost her job for reading the “N-word” while she was trying to analyze the history of this country. Hannah Berliner Fischthal, an instructor at Queens Catholic University for twenty years, was fired for reading a paragraph in her literature class from the anti-racist novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, written by Mark Twain, one of the founders of the Anti-Imperialist League and the greatest literary celebrity of his time. The paragraph included The word. “It was very painful to hear the word” denounced one of the students, infantilized and hypersensitive to the wrong side, like many of his generation. The same thing has happened to history professors, such as Professor Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University in Minnesota, who was suspended for reading a paragraph from a book by famous black intellectual and activist James Baldwin.
Anyone who has studied the original sources of the history of this country, the United States (so addicted to sugar-coated myths), has encountered thousands of times that, The word, in the most derogatory way possible in the mouths of the most powerful men of the 19th and 20th century. Now, quoting congressional speeches, newspaper articles, and letters from national heroes in their original form has become dangerous, so self-censorship, the most effective form of censorship imaginable, works perfectly.
Of the racism of current American society and the racism on steroids of its genocidal wars in the name of freedom, not a word.
What is more effective than the infantilization of the new generations to avoid facing reality? Every semester, I warn my students from the first day of classes: “if there is someone here whose sensibilities do not allow them to face the disgusting truths of history, please drop the course and do not waste your time.” But I do not say The word, just in case. It is not worth losing the war for wanting to win a losing battle.
As in chess, we can give up a piece, a word, and continue to use others to harass the damned king. Words matter and are the main weapon of any social power. Once colonized, the words, the ideolexicons, think for their masters, and only a radical critique can free them to free individuals and peoples.
JM, February 2022.
(For a more complete analysis, see the book A Political Theory of Semantic Fields, Majfud, 2005)