Thursday, February 28, 2013

When the n-word overshadows the rest of the discussion [He said what?]

So, yesterday, this happened.

Read the article before responding (even in your head) to anything I write below, but in short, some Sigma Alpha Epsilon hazing at Washington University in St. Louis went on that included singing a song regularly heard on the radio but it happened in a public space in the company of some people who could be offended by the language in said song. The "language" was the n-word.

I wrote the below in a Facebook thread about it, and my intent was to break down the different elements at play - not to side one way or another (that is a whole other blog post) or downplay the feelings of any of the individuals involved.

This incident has very quickly become black and white (no pun intended) and I think it's important to hold onto the ability to see all the pieces at play. These are the pieces I see:

1) It seems pretty clear these Freshmen were carrying out a hazing activity, not intended to be about anything but hazing and bonding of the students. I believe hazing is supposed to not be happening.

2) One of the many hazing activities included some mainstream songs that contain a bevvy of words and ideas that could be offensive to a number of groups of people in various ways. But that anyone who listens to popular music has heard repeatedly - in these tunes and many many more. Whether or not this is an issue, I would say, is akin to the blowback from the passive offensive nature of the Oscars, etc.

3) Some black students happened to be in the public space where the hazing went down. Would I personally sing a song in a public space that degraded someone different than me with whom I was sharing the space? No. (How many of us have experienced that very uncomfortable karaoke night moment?) I consider myself pretty aware. I know that many consider this common sense, but some people really do grow up and exist in a bubble where they have never had to consider these things (I'm generally willing to give one strike, at least - I know some consider me generous). This, to me, is a discussion about the degree of PCness we should or shouldn't have in our society. Also a discussion of intent versus impact - or, as well as impact.

4) This incident contains a ton of elements usually present in conflicts that happen around discrimination. But it doesn't seem to be an incident of active and intentional discrimination (though this is up to debate and continued investigation, which Washington University is doing - see #3). We, in society are quick and fast to see these elements and go on the attack. This is steeped in many things, most of all, history. But to me, it feels like this one has been jumped on in a pretty unfair way. If we Jesse Jackson/Al Sharpton every incident with these elements, we run the risk - in my opinion - of being treated (some would say even more so than we already are) as though we are crying wolf. I feel like we have to be able to have discussions along the continuum.

5) The use of the N-word. Taking all of the other points above into account, I think that ultimately, if it's continued to be put out there, we should not be surprised that it comes back to us in various unintended or "unapproved" formats. Again, taking all of the other points above into account, there is still a conversation to be had about the personal responsibility of choosing to use it and when - or the capacity to understand the landscape of that choice - or even see it as a choice. In my opinion, not being surprised is separate from not having the right to be offended.