My friend Rod posted a link today to this story of a high school teacher in Texas who resigned after she was suspended by the administration for using “the N-word” when chastising a black student. Now, if your first response is “good, that’s uncalled for. She should never work around children again,” then good. Welcome to the human race. But, of course there’s more to the story (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it, right?).
So, it appears what happened is the student, 17 year-old Isaiah Thomas, called another student “an offensive term to homosexuals.” The teacher, Gretchen Summers, told him that using such language in school was inappropriate, and how would he like it if someone called him “an offensive term to African Americans?” News outlets being what they are, both terms have been omitted from every version of the story I can find, but it’s pretty clear that the slurs in question are “faggot” and “nigger.” Now the story is a little more ambiguous.
Now for one thing, this is sort of my problem with over-politcal correctness. If you watch the video of the news reports, since the news doesn’t want to be offensive they never actually use either term. Instead they just refer to “an offensive term to [homosexuals/African-Americans].” Which sounds ridiculous and sort of makes talking about the story hard. Because if you take the story literally it sounds like the teacher said “How would you like it if someone called you an offensive term to African-Americans?” But she didn’t say that. If she had, it would have been fine. What she was “How would you like it if someone called you a nigger?” But since you can’t say that even to report on it, the entire thing just sounds really confusing.
Anyway, here’s my problem with the whole thing. People don’t handle offensive terms correctly. A few years ago (long before everyone realized that he maybe raped a significant percentage of the women on the planet) Bill Cosby did an appearance on Meet the Press with Alvin Poussaint where they spoke in favor of banning the word “nigger” because “too many died over that word” and using it, even casually and in rap songs, makes white people think it’s ok to use it. I disagreed with Cosby and Poussaint because no one ever died over the word nigger. They died because there’s a shit ton of racist motherfuckers walking around who kill people because they’re black. As I said then, I like the word. I like when white people use it. Because the best thing about a white dude standing on the street corner yelling “I hate niggers!!!! Go back to Africa you fucking niggers!!!!” is that he has made my life a lot easier. I know where he stands. Short of wearing a sheet and a pointy hat, he has done his best to let me know “hey everyone, I’m a huge fucking racist!” I now know that I should probably walk on the other side of the street… or if I’m feeling froggy, maybe walk up to him and punch him in the dick. Either way, he’s saved me a lot of the guess work that normally goes with playing “spot the racist.” So like… good on him.
The same goes with gay slurs. Are they offensive? Yes! Absolutely. The problem is, in America we sort of love to treat the symptom. The problem with saying “you shouldn’t say this” is that it doesn’t really change anything about what the person is feeling. Do you remember when you were like 7 and there were bad words? You weren’t allowed to say “damn” so you said “darn.” “Shit” became “shoot” or “shucks.” “butt” gets used instead of “ass” and “friggin'” instead of “fucking.” The FCC continues to enforce this sort of thing on public airwaves to this day. So let me make something clear to you. If you’re against hearing the word “fucking” from a kid but you’re okay with the word “friggin” then you are a fucking idiot. They mean the same thing. The kid has the exact same sentiment in mind. He probably uses the word “fucking” around his friends. He is only substituting because he doesn’t want to get in trouble and he is smarter than you are.
My mother told me a story once. She was hanging out with my (then) 5 year-old niece and my mother called something “ugly.” Not a person or anything like that. She was referring to something she just didn’t like the look of. Like an ugly car or something. My niece immediately corrected her, because in school she learned that we’re not supposed to use “bad words” like “ugly.” It turns out that the school was trying to teach the kids not to refer to anything in derogatory terms. This is of course ridiculous. Sometimes something is ugly and you want to be able to express that. My niece knew the car was ugly. She certainly feels that some things are ugly. She was just told not to say how she’s feeling and never told why it was bad to feel certain ways.
The same thing happened here. Summers wasn’t really telling Thomas “it’s wrong to be homophobic.” She was saying “it’s wrong to express homophobia.” And she wasn’t suspended for being racist; she was expended for using a racist term. Maybe young Isaiah Thomas is a raging homophobe. Maybe he’s just ignorant of the connotation the word has. Same thing with the white kids I always hear calling each other “my nigga” today. But, no one is actually trying to teach them NOT to feel that way. You’re teaching them that it’s not ok to express it. That’s a dangerous lesson. If a kid calls another kid “a butthead” no one cares. If Summers had said “the N-word” no one would care. If Isaiah had called the other kid “a Nancy Boy” probably no one would have thought twice about him… and if they did, they’d probably go “what’s with the porch monkey using 18th century slang?” and moved on with their lives.
But that’s dumb. Why? Because I assure you, if I see the same old white man, sans pointy hat and sheet, standing on the street corner yelling “I hate N-words! Go back to Africa you friggin’ N-words!” I’m still either crossing the street or if I’m feeling froggy, punching him in the dick.
The thing is, I don’t rule America. One day I will, and it will be a much better country. But for now, I don’t. And that means that my logic doesn’t necessarily work. I swear a lot. At least when I write here, I do. And I know that I offend people the way I write. I do it on purpose. But I understand the risks. And more importantly, I can take a punch. So in the Maverick World Order, you’re going to have absolute freedom of speech. You’re going to be able to be as offensive as you want to be. But it comes with the caveat that it’s going to be completely ok to punch someone in the dick when they’re being offensive.
But we’re not there yet. And that’s where Summers made her big mistake.
The great philosopher Artie Lange once said in response to the claim that “calling a little person a midget is just like calling a black person a nigger” that he did an experiment. He walked into a room of little people and yelled “Midget” and then walked into a room of black people and yelled “Nigger” and trust him, they’re different. And right now they are. “Nigger” and “faggot” are different too. For better or for worse, “nigger” is basically the most offensive term in American English right now. So much so that it’s almost always abbreviated to “the N-Word.” When someone says it you say “don’t say the N-word.” When someone says faggot you say “saying faggot is like saying the N-word.” People won’t even use it to talk about how it’s wrong. The thing with faggot is people WANT it to be that offensive. Because the IDEA behind it is offensive, so we have an active push to give the word that offense too.
But “nigger” is already there. And Summers, as an educator —and moreover as a citizen of the United States at some point in the last 100 years or so — should pretty much realize that. That was her mistake. Her sentiment was 100% correct. But she lives here and her response just isn’t. Not yet. And if the push to make both words equally offensive ever happens, it will still be wrong (in her position).
Of course, in the Maverick World Order she won’t have to say anything to Thomas at all. She could have just punched him in the dick.