On Michael Richards and the N-word.
I have always thought very highly of Michael Richards as a comic actor, highly enough that I refuse to disrespect him by just calling him "Kramer," as so many commentators have been doing this week. Seriously, I still have VCU students and alumni calling me "Scmendimann," and I did Picasso at the Lapin Agile like three years ago. Can we please have the respect to call actors by their actual names? And anyway, if you're going to pigeonhole Richards by naming him for his greatest role, it's obviously Stanley Spadowski from U.H.F.
If you'll look at my previous posts regarding audience behavior, you might deduce that I'm likely to have some measure of sympathy for Richards in this situation. Audiences, especially modern ones trained on how to behave by years of practice on their living room couches, don't exactly have a history of great respect for live performers, particularly comedians. There seems to be a tacet understanding that your $5 cover and two-drink minimum give you license to act like an ass. By all accounts, Richards' tormentors had something coming to them. Where the controversy erupts is in the question of whether they had F-bombs coming to them, or more specifically, the N-word.
Ah, there it is. "The N-Word." Am I in trouble for just saying that, much less the word itself? I am, after all, white-skinned like Richards. Am I allowed to use the N-word under any circumstances? Can I even say the "N-word"-word without your hackles rising? What I'm finding interesting this week is less Richards' actions and more--you guessed it--the coverage of the story.
In addition to the speculation about Richards' motivation, his possible racism, and his likely-wrecked career, I've heard a lot of discussion about just who is allowed to use the N-word and when. Apparently, you can say it in comedy clubs, and you can say it if you're black. (Richards was in a comedy club, but being white and Jewish, he is apparently not permitted to say it.) According to most people I've heard, being white and saying this word is simply inexcusable under any circumstances. It's a bad word, with hateful connotations and centuries of oppressive history behind it.
Something about that opinion has always rubbed me the wrong way, and recently a few things have happened that solidified it for me. So thank you, Michael Richards, for this instructive lesson in How to Screw Up Publicly and Get Yourself Labeled a Racist. Hopefully, I can discuss this topic without falling into the same swiftly-sinking boat with you.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, I watched a little television. Actually, I watched quite a lot; I have had the stomach flu all week and all I'm good for is sitting. A week later, all the TV news networks are still talking Michael Richards, and showing clips from his comedy club tirade, F- and N-words bleeped out for our sensitive ears. In between episodes of Dirty Jobs and Modern Marvels, I flipped channels.
There, on the USA Network, was some gangsta movie starring Ice Cube, wherein every actor dropped N-words like pronouns. Unbleeped. In the middle of the afternoon. The day after Thanksgiving, with school out and the kids at home. And I wasn't actually watching the movie, I was switching channels; this word came up often enough that every time I made a three-second stop on the channel I heard it. So apparently this word, so horrible that no white person can say it, is perfectly acceptable for midday broadcast on the network that I used to love for the "USA Network Cartoon Express." just as long as a black guy is saying it.
Does no one else see the complete and utter hypocrisy of this? Do you understand, white people who work as news anchors are bleeping this word out on networks designed for the sole purpose of relating the news. White journalists can't report the fact that he said "n#####," but black actors can drop it like unwanted pennies in the middle of the afternoon on basic freaking cable? And the same night, I saw a Biography Channel show about Richard Pryor, praising him as an innovator and a bridge-builder with the N-word gloriously and boldly part of his album titles. At least the narrator, who sounded white, was allowed to say the word.
Is it a bad word? Then stop saying it. Because if it's a word only certain people can use, I can get behind that; I don't want kids dropping F-bombs and calling each other A-holes. That's why we have TV and movie ratings systems. But nothing should be rated B for Black or W for White. If the word is bad, bleep it out. But sure as hell don't broadcast it in the middle of the damn day and say it's okay because a black dude is saying it.
Is it a bad word? Then stop saying it. Why do black people get a pass on this? (Warning: offensive words ahead.) Jews don't greet each other with, "What's up, kike?" Italians don't say "That's my dago right there," and Asians don't say "All my slants in the house say yeah!" All of these racial slurs have similar histories to the N-word. What other group gets to use a word this offensive without anyone questioning it? There's a term that describes "only one race gets to do this thing." The term is "prejudice."
And it's not just the N-word. Apparently we can't even say anything that sounds like the N-word. In rehearsals for Julius Caesar a few months ago, we came upon the lines "And nature must obey necessity; / Which we will niggard with a little rest." "Niggard," which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "1. n. A stingy, grasping person; a miser. 2. adj. Stingy; miserly.[Middle English nigard, perhaps from nig, stingy person, of Scandinavian origin.]" Shakespeare, in typical fashion, turns it into a verb. Our director, wishing to avoid any problems, chose to change the word to "neglect." I argued the point, mainly just to play devil's advocate, but was overruled.
First of all, "neglect" doesn't mean the same as "niggard." In fact, it isn't even close. Actually, nothing means the same as "niggard;" there are no useful synonyms. Secondly, it's Shakespeare, and I absolutely believe that you don't change a playwright's words because they're too hard for you to work with. Thirdly, "niggard" is quite simply not an offensive word, and frankly if you're offended by a near-homonym, that's your problem, not Shakespeare's or mine. As I argued that day, if we're doing a British sex comedy, do we change the word "knickers?" That sounds just as much like the N-word as "niggard" does. What if, in the same play, a character wants to smoke and asks for a "fag?" That's a pretty offensive word there. Changing "niggard" because of a sound-alike is, to me, surrender to racism. It means the bastards won; they made us change our behavior. Interestingly, our director told us that he has done shows where the black members of the cast refused to change "niggard" to another word. They insisted on saying it. Smart actors.
Clearly, Michael Richards has made a complete fool of himself, whether or not he's actually a racist, and his career is pretty much over. Next stop: The Surreal Life. (Actually, that's a pretty brilliant idea. I bet all the other cast members will call him "Kramer.") But this isn't about Michael Richards any more; in fact, I'm kind of grateful to him for bringing this issue to the fore in my mind.
What concerns me is that it seems like we're much less interested in the use of an offensive word than in the color of the skin of the people who use it, context be damned. Which is the greater crime: Richards' use of the N-word, or his using it without the proper license?