Op-ed: Django, The N-Word, and The F-Word
BY RJ Aguiar
February 20 2013 6:00 AM ET
Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino, I was obviously excited for the release of Django Unchained. I am one of the many who saw the film and enjoyed it thoroughly. Being a fan of Quentin Tarantino, I also know to expect controversy following the release of any of his films. Of course, normally, Tarantino controversy surrounds his portrayal of what he calls “movie violence.” Django is different, though, because it centers on slavery in the United States. More specifically, the film caught flak for its frequent use of a certain “n word.”
Let me say first that I’m not looking to comment about racism in America, or to evaluate Tarantino’s film and/or its portrayal of slavery in any way. Instead, I want to remark about how the film’s recent controversy brings to light an issue with the way our society handles so-called hate speech.
Take a look at this clip from a recent interview conducted to promote Django Unchained. In it, the reporter attempts to ask Samuel L. Jackson a question regarding the infamous “n word”…
As you can see, Jackson essentially shoots down the question because the reporter just can’t bring himself to say the word. You know, the “n word.” The one that rhymes with “bigger.”
Now there could have been many reasons for Jackson to respond the way he did. Press junkets, after all, can be pretty grueling, so perhaps he was just looking for an opportunity to mess with the guy. But I contend Jackson instead wishes to prove a point, that point being that …(*gasp*)…it’s OK to use “hate speech” within a certain context. Yes, we tend to shy away from some words because, over time, they have been used to express anger and hatred, and have subsequently become symbols of hatred and intolerance. Thus, logically, suppressing use of the word should help suppress that hatred, at least to an extent. Human beings think in language, thus, by influencing language, you also help influence thought.
Furthermore, when society frowns upon use of these “terms of hatred,” it also demonstrates a disapproval of the hatred they represent. All of this is true… but to a certain extent. I contend, and I think Mr. Jackson would agree with me on this, that suppression of language can go too far, to the point that it interferes with honest, meaningful dialogue.
Let's say the interview above had gone differently. Say that the reporter had been bold enough to look Jackson in the eye and use the “n word” out loud (which would no doubt take guts), exactly what would have happened? The interview would have continued, and the two men would have hopefully had a meaningful discussion about the word itself, and the role that it plays in both the film and our society as a whole. There’s no hatred or animosity in that discussion.
On the contrary, it’s those kinds of conversations that help bridge the gap of racial relations in this country and ultimately help heal the damage slavery has done. But, because there is such an elephant in the room, conversation goes nowhere. Even if Jackson had decided to answer the question, the elephant would remain.
The reporter would still feel the need to walk on eggshells around the issue.
The gap would still exist.
While this is just one interview about one movie, a proverbial raindrop in the ocean of racial dialogue in America, I feel like it is extremely symptomatic of how the overall conversation has evolved. It’s gotten to the point where my boyfriend, a white boy raised in the contemporary South, is made uncomfortable when he’s forced to use terms like “black” or “African-American.” The whole topic of race in general makes him so uncomfortable that he doesn’t ever want to discuss it. That’s not good. If we want relations to improve, then we need to facilitate conversation, not shut it down.
I can’t help but be reminded of Harry Potter, when certain characters are too afraid to say the name of the franchise’s main antagonist (instead opting to call him “He Who Must Not Be Named” or “You-Know-Who”). Consequently, I will borrow a quote from the franchise: “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.”
I’d like to think that the LGBT community is immune from making the same mistake. Unfortunately, I see us headed in a similar direction. I see LGBT bloggers constantly attacking one another over improper use of certain terminology, and that’s just within our own community. God forbid a straight person mumbles anything in public that so much as borders inappropriate. In today’s online society, it takes merely minutes for an angry storm to gather strength and bombard that person long after they have completed “GLAAD rehab.” Does that mean we need to stop holding people accountable for what they say? Absolutely not. I’m merely proposing that we examine context, and especially intent, before judging what a person says.
Language, believe it or not, is a living thing, one that evolves through usage and intent. We have grown to despise words like “faggot” or “the n-word” because they have been used, over time, with the intent to cause harm. If history had chosen the word “butterfly” in place of the word “faggot” (which is the case in certain Spanish-speaking communities), then we wouldn’t bat an eyelash anytime someone said “faggot.” The same can be said for words like “dyke” or “tranny” or any other term we deem offensive.
A few years ago, I was in a literature seminar discussing Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. During the discussion, I mistakenly used hate speech when I referred to one of the characters as a “transvestite.” I wasn’t being derogatory at all; I was simply trying to state a fact, and was not aware of the proper terminology. Before long, though, I was descended upon by other members of the group. After all, being a cisgendered male reeks of privilege in that setting. Any and all meaningful discussion stopped, and devolved into a series of lectures on offensive language, ultimately creating a great deal of animosity among myself and these other group members.
I know that every person who corrected me that day had all of the best intentions for doing what they did, but they ended up ultimately hurting their cause. In my day-to-day work as an LGBT vlogger, I still find myself sometimes shying away from trans topics, not because I have anything against anyone in that category, but because I’m afraid of accidentally repeating that previous mistake. I’ve met plenty of straight people, especially in that key demographic of center-leaning conservatives, who feel similarly toward all gay people for the very same reason. They don’t have anything against us, but they hate bringing up the topic of sexual orientation because it makes them so anxious.
This, my friends, is not the message that we need to be sending out. We can’t preach a message of love and acceptance and then jump down a person’s throat whenever they say something we don’t like. We must ensure we're encouraging meaningful conversation and discussion rather than trying to hinder it. Sometimes, that’s going to involve using words that may be considered offensive or inappropriate in certain settings. It also involves ensuring that all participants are on a level playing field, regardless of who they are or where they come from.
As another example, I’d like to present one more of Tarantino’s films, one that deals with another horrible chapter in human history, Inglourious Basterds. One could certainly argue that Jewish people under Nazi Germany experienced subjugation as reprehensible as African-Americans experienced during the slave trade. Yet no one gave it much thought when characters in the film used the word “Jew” as a derogatory term. Why is this? The word “Jew” definitely has plenty of persecution and death in its history. Despite that fact, though, it is still possible to use “the j-word” in a non-derogatory manner. It depends entirely on the context of the situation.
Therefore, I submit that we can find a happy medium somewhere, where we are able to have civil, substantive, respectful dialogue during which all those involved can contribute freely and without fear of being attacked, judged, or lectured. In order for this to happen, concessions must be made on all sides, and all parties will likely have to venture out a little from their comfort zones. In the end, though, the long-term benefits will likely far outweigh the short-term costs.