Saturday night was Barack Obama’s last White House Correspondents’ Dinner. It is customary for participants to tell jokes; however, Larry Wilmore went a bit too far. Attempting to praise Obama’s legacy, Wilmore ended by saying, “Yo Barry, you did it my n—a.” As a black man, I’m enraged. But I understand that some black people disagree with me–their vote counts in this matter. As a black man, I’m equally enraged that non-black people are attempting to police the word–their vote doesn’t count. Other groups are allowed to own their own wounds within their communities and treat them as they wish. But for some reason reason, the “N-word” is a cluster.
After Wilmore dropped the N-word, Fox News host Todd Starnes (who is white) tweeted his unsolicited outrage. Starnes called Wilmore out for “race baiting” and using a “racial epithet.” Black people are quite perplexed when whites, in particular, go so hard against anyone using the word when for so long we never heard any campaign against its use. Further, it’s comical when the condemnation is against another black person using it–as if we presently need defense from other black folks using the word towards us. The reality is that people like Starnes would do much better using their platform to police the fact that regardless of credit score, my color can negatively impact my ability to qualify for a mortgage.
Every group has experienced some form of oppression and they ought to be allowed complete ownership of that experience. This means I cannot police, among the Irish, the slurs that have been used towards them over the years. I cannot attempt to be the resident expert on their experience of oppression. This also means that when I hear my gay friends call each other the “F-word” in jest, I ought not to attempt to educate them on the usage of that word. In either case, as a straight cisgender black man I do not share in the pain of these experiences and as such, I don’t get a vote on how members of either group interprets them today. I should defer to the Irish on all things Irish and to the LGBTQ community in their experiences and respect both. Neither of these scenarios seem to be a challenge for America; it is seemingly only black people who are not allowed to own our experience and thus we consider that a luxury other groups are afforded.
That luxury of ownership was afforded to Jerry Seinfield when he decided to have a little fun with the movie Schindler’s List in one of his show’s episodes. Opting to make out with his date rather than pay attention to the movie, people laughed at Jerry’s seeming indifference to the immense pain and suffering Steven Spielberg brought to life in his film. On the contrary, when black students in Oakland laughed during a showing of Schindler’s List, it set off a firestorm, culminating in Spielberg visiting their school in Oakland. That is all completely in bounds: Jerry is Jewish and he gets a say in how he treats Schindler’s List and those students don’t. That’s the way it should be.
Jerry was allowed to have some fun with Schindler’s List but no one was confused as to why they couldn’t. We’ve all likely heard LGBTQ folks use slurs within their community but no one is dying to try it out for themselves or help that community police the matter. In a sense, that’s all black people desire: to own our experiences of suffering as well. The ultimate insult is to have been called the “N-word” for centuries and to now be policed by whites in using it. Frankly, my anger with Wilmore is only rooted in the fact that this country seems incapable of understanding all this. His public use of the term inspires confidence in other non-blacks to use it and creates opportunity for a dominant culture to police our experience without bothering to do the same to other groups. Just maybe, as a country we are more bothered by black ownership, than black suffering.