I began this post the end of last week, and while most of it was written, I found myself wanting to know more about… well the taboo words at the heart of this post and this controversy.  So I read, and reread the linked paper by Randall Kennedy, a story from Time Magazine, and a bunch of other resources.

Zach Stafford has a good post on HuffPost Gay Voices worth a read. Here is a snip:

Though the politics of who can say certain words are tricky, as we see with battles around words like “faggot” or “nigger,” I think it is important for us to take note of this incident. Personally, that screenshot, the language it entails, and even Needles’ response in the interview leaves me unsettled and a tad angry. Those remarks are uncalled for and inappropriate, to say the least. There seems to be a constant tension between drag and racism, the most visceral example being popular performer Shirley Q Liquor’s choice to perform in blackface and exploit many dangerous stereotypes of black people, which has caused lots of backlash. So my real question is: why is drag sometimes racist, and why do drag performers occasionally do arguably racist things?

The answer? I don’t know. The solution? I really don’t know.

I have a possible answer for Zach, and the clue for it is in his first sentence!

Though the politics of who can say certain words are tricky, as we see with battles around words like “faggot” or “nigger,”

What Zach calls “the politics of who can say …” is really a divisive fallacy that suggests some people can say some words and not others. Isn’t that a lot like, in Jim Crow days, some could use some bathrooms and not others? The fallacy is that a word for a member of a group means one thing but for a member outside of the group, it means something else. I call this fallacious for two reasons. First, it perpetuates the status quo of separating people into groups that otherwise is antagonistic to equality, and second, it sets up a system of privilege where one person has a right to certain language that another person doesn’t have the right to.

In my opinion, this is one reason, we talk about this with safe language like calling it a matter of the “politics of…” On some level, we all want some privilege or want to hold on to whatever privilege we think we are entitled to. Does anyone really think that some people own some word or another?

Kennedy does a thorough job of exploring the past of the word “nigger” as well as all of the vast complexity surrounding its use by those within as well as outside the African American community. I especially like this snip:

But antiblack prejudice is an implausible explanation for why many assertive, self-aware, politically progressive African Americans continue to use nigger in the ways to which Shipp and Cosby object. These are African Americans who maintain that they use nigger not in subjection to racial subordination but in triumphant defiance to it, a defiance that includes saying what one pleases regardless of how it strikes the sensibilities of E.R. Shipp, Bill Cosby, Tipper Gore, L. Delores Tucker, William Bennett, or any other would-be arbiters of taste and respectability.

In other words, there is no one single way to look at the use of words that have served as slurs.

I am not really trying to justify or defend Sharon’s Facebook post or her own defense of it, although I won’t be surprised if someone accuses me of that. But I do think the focus on who says what is really missing the real point. Full disclosure however, I am 100% a Sharon Needles fan in terms of her appearance on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Outside of that, I have never met her, seen her or heard her perform.

And I don’t have any real issue with the comments of Phi Phi O’hara. I thought Phi Phi’s comments were perfectly aligned with the character she was playing. While she is much less accomplished than a wide assortment of comics who can do social commentary far better than she, I give her credit for what I thought was social and political commentary. For the record however, I hate her guts and don’t want her to win. Kisses. But I can not be offended that her humor fell short of being well executed. Neither Phi Phi nor Sharon are Lenny Bruce.

As for Sharon’s own defense, I’m totally down with it. I get it, and I believe it is also meaningful cultural commentary.

Needles defending herself against claims of racism, stating, “I’m such a fan of using shocking images, whether they be relevant or not.” She then says, “I don’t hate anyone for how they look. I hate people for who they are.”

Don’t love me (or hate me) because of what I look like. Love me (or hate me) because of who I am- the whole of me. Now, Sharon doesn’t talk in terms of “love,” she uses more shocking confrontational images, and perhaps some of the controversy is more about how her confrontational style makes people feel uncomfortable.

If this looks like I am totally disagreeing with Zach, I don’t think I am. I agree with him that the issues this raises are important to be discussed. I’m just not sure if the space of discussion is centered on who can say what words. And, if you have read this far, and steam isn’t pouring out of your ears, I’ll add that it isn’t nearly as simple as this.

The license to borrow terms other people have taken back can worry even edgy comics. A few months ago, I interviewed Silverman, who argued that her material was not racist but about racism (and I agree). But she added something that surprised me, coming from her: “I’m not saying ‘I can say nigger because I’m liberal.’ There is a certain aspect of that that I’m starting to get grossed out by. ‘Oh, we’re not racist. We can say it.'”

Comedians work through these danger zones in the presence of other comics. In a comedians’ get-together or a TV writers’ room, nothing is off-limits: without airing the joke that goes too far, you can never get to the joke that flies in front of an audience. Trouble might come if material meant for that smaller audience went public, as in 1993, when Ted Danson got in trouble after word got out of a Friars Club routine he did in blackface, though his jokes were defended — and reportedly written by — his then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg. Today, because of cable and YouTube, because of a media culture that rewards the fastest, least censoring mouth, we are all in the writers’ room. (Friars Club roasts are now televised on Comedy Central.)

Are drag queens humorists, comics or some other form of social commentary agents? Add to that, the fact that reality TV isn’t reality at all, but unscripted video captured, edited and distorted to form some semi-fictional semi-factual story.


Additional reading:

Who can say “Nigger”? and Other Considerations by Randall Kennedy

The Imus Fallout: Who can say what?


  1. Leonard Jones says:

    Wow, I came here ready to try to educate another racist, but the Randall Kennedy article was fantastic. I don’t agree with his conclusion or with your article, but “Who can say ‘Nigger?’…” was a great read. 

    I disagree with Sharon Needle’s use of nigger, because she is a member of the class that historically used it in an arsenal of oppression to demean, humiliate, and subjugate African-Americans. 

    I do agree with Mr. Kennedy that nigger serves a useful purpose in the historical record and enriches our culture. I don’t think that white people cannot say nigger all of the time, but we live in a racist society that historically has had the persons in power use nigger negatively. 

    That is why I ultimately disagree with Mr. Kennedy’s conclusion. You cannot deny the history of the word, it’s why some black people use it to “diffuse” it’s historical racism, some black people seek to eradicate it from language, and why black people are offended when white people use it. It carries weight. And while yes language hanges and evolves, the n-word still carries a terrible history of violence for most black people when said by whites. 

    P.S. Please don’t compare Jim Crow to whether or not whites can call black people niggers. It comes across as naive and heartless. There might not be a single way to look at who can say what, but there is an overarching theme based on the historical racism of the n-word. If you don’t believe me incorporate nigger into your daily language. A word-of-the-day type thing. 😉

    • tcwaters says:

      Leonard, first, thanks for adding to the dialogue. I would suggest however, that if you really want to help educate, then it may be helpful to leave the personal attacks out of it. Everyone today, me and you included has grown up and is influenced by racism. Racism isn’t this thing that white people have, but rather, it is a deeply institutionalized structure of power relations. It is important for everyone to talk about and learn about racism. Calling someone a racist is a pretty surefire way to stop any meaningful dialogue, and doesn’t advance anyone towards better ways of being in community with each other.

      I want to be clear, that I personally, am not saying that I agree or disagree with “Sharon Needle’s use of nigger.” I see that as a value judgement and my post was neither to defend or attack her or anyone. My point however, was to draw attention to this practice of thinking it is OK for some people to use some words while others are not permitted based solely on their skin color. This sense of one group “owning words” is problematic.

      I also think that the word “nigger” may not at all be like other words. This is a quote from Zach’s piece: “Though the politics of who can say certain words are tricky, as we see with battles around words like “faggot” or “nigger,” ” In my opinion, he either consciously or unconsciously equates these two terms or sees them in a similar way. I’m not sure I do. “Nigger” and “faggot may be quite different actually because of the history of each They may share some similarities and also have differences.

      I think it is really important to add that there are black people who are offended when other blacks use “nigger” and there are white people who believe being called “nigger” as a good thing- not derogatory but positive. There are people who feel that no one should use the word. In other words, people are all over the map in relation to the word, and far more discourse is the right avenue for sorting all of that out.

      Personally, I don’t like Needle’s use of the word. As an artist, I have done many works that employ some level of in-your-face and/or shock and from that perspective I can appreciate the use of shock. I also believe that Drag is a form of social commentary, and like Lenny Bruce, Chris Rock, and a host of others who have use the word- I think there is value at in your face cultural critique. I am not saying that she is either justified or not justified. I AM saying that to decide she is wrong simply because she is white, is problematic. Even if you do not agree, do you understand my point?

      I think these are two VERY different statements:
      “whether or not whites can call black people niggers.” (your words)
      “First, it perpetuates the status quo of separating people into groups that otherwise is antagonistic to equality, and second, it sets up a system of privilege where one person has a right to certain language that another person doesn’t have the right to.” (my words)

      I do not think these mean the same things. I am not suggesting nor would I suggest “whites can call blacks…” because the very basis of that is segregating. Does that make sense? I am not the one separating people by their skin color. I am saying that starting from that place is problematic. I believe a better place to start is looking at why words carry the weight they do, and having THAT (not a person’s skin color) be the basis for examining. Does that make sense?

  2. If you don’t grasp, in U.S. society, the profound difference in meaning of a white person saying nigger to a black person and a black person saying it to another black person, you are either being willfully obtuse or perversely stupid.  I can only assume you were being ironic in asking whether it isn’t “like the Jim Crow days” in segregating words like bathrooms and water fountains.  I personally don’t like hearing the word any more than I like hearing people dropping f-bombs.  But surely you know it is perhaps the most weighted slur in American English; the politics of who can and can’t use it (although nobody really should in my opinion — even silly people who think they’re “reclaiming” it) ought not require much thought.

    • tcwaters says:

      Sorry, this is little more than a personal attack because you are so sure that your perspective is the only right one. You don’t try to offer reasons why you see it differently, you just attack. Really doesn’t make your point any more or less valid.

      Did you read Kennedy’s article? Ideas, especially within the African American community are very mixed as to the use of this specific racial slur. The position you hold is just one perspective. But I think ou really miss the point in a big way, and here is why I think that. Look at the quote I pulled from Zach’s piece, and from which I wrote. He is talking about the politics of who can say certain words like nigger and faggot. Right? He mentions both of these slurs, and he draws no distinction between the two. He is saying that there is an acceptable (double) standard, as to who can say what words. I am suggesting that that double standard is problematic. I am not making any claim that the slurs themselves are not horrific.

      Your position is that it would be better if no one used a word that has been described as “the most noxious word in the English language.” I am not sure that I would disagree with that. But funny thing with language. Words have a life of their own, and part of the controversy is all about who is trying the hardest to believe they get to control this word.

      But today, there are white dudes who see it as a badge of success to be called that very word, and even within the African American community, there are no less than four different notions of what using that word might mean.

      If you can let go of the Victim Olympics long enough, you might be able to grasp one of my points (since it is the only one you seem to have paid any attention to). When we as a whole culture set up boundaries around words, as if some people are allowed to use them and others not, simply because of the color of our skin, we perpetuate the same mentality that rationalized segregation. This isn’t a new thought really. It has bee taken for granted for a long time for a host of reasons.

      If you can not make your point without insulting me or making personal attacks, then what do you have? Not much. The aggression is a symptom of the problem, and not a part of the solution.

  3. This was from Twitter:
    Scott Free ? @ScottFreeIn4D Reply  Retweeted  Favorite · Open@tcwaters What a well thought-out post, nothing like the half-assed “journalism” at @HuffingtonPost by @ZachStafford.

  4. Hey, I saw that piece you have a picture of there at Art All Night this weekend — in the “adult” section, and I had a conversation about it with some strangers who were also there observing it.  It was actually the only piece that seemed to generate any conversation all night.

    • My partner actuyally snapped the pic. Can you identify the artist.  We thought we would be able to from the tag, but we can’t make it out and I’d like to attribute it. I almost didn’t use the image because of this, but it is a really powerful work, IMHO.