Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Friday, November 24, 2006

On Michael Richards and the N-word.

This has been the best week ever for Mel Gibson. Finally, he is no longer bigot-of-the moment, vilified in story and song, his every explanation not enough and his every apology not sufficient. That role has fallen to Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame, who shocked America with an expletive-laden tirade against two black hecklers in a comedy club earlier this week. Unfortunately for Richards, the act was caught on tape and has been seen all over the web and television.

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?

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  • At 11/26/2006 10:46 PM , Blogger Scott Wichmann said...

    Black people started using the N-word to re-claim it and flip it from an oppresive label to something culturally empowering. You cited a whole host of racial epithets in your post-- (kike, Dago, etc) and not a one of them come close to eliciting the visceral social reaction than the word "Nigger." I'm sorry, they just don't. In the freudian sense, to 'claim' the oppressive word is to take away it's power. That's just what comedians like Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, Dave Chapelle & others have done for years.

    You may not believe it, but many cultural groups grab onto these labels (most of which were created largely by scared WASPy white guys, BTW) and fill them with humor in an effort to diffuse their intended purpose. Yes, even Ice Cube. On USA Network. In the middle of the day. Watch Margaret Cho or Paul Rodriguez-- they do the same thing. Write to USA network if they offended you!!

    The N-word is charged with a deep, heavy, relatively recent and ongoing history of injustice and opression. Call a black person the N-word and you get what's coming to you.

    And yes, I'm sorry, but the race of the person using this verbiage DOES matter. What, should we pretend history never happened? Should we be naive enough to think that all people have the same life experience, and that certain words don't have huge inter-cultural significance?? There is not a name someone could call you or me that is both an insult to both us and every single member of our family dating back four-hundred years. There's simply not one. Honky?? Cracker?? Not even close. I fwe were both black, no there would be a different story entirely.

    I used the N-word in a show called 'Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop' a few years back. I took no issue with saying it, as it was what the script demanded of me, and it's use reinforced a point about combatting the whole manufactured 40's-hoes-spinning rims-Philly Blunts-fresh kicks-&-gats-are-the most-important-things mentality which seems to have kids of all races steeped in ignorance and blind to the empowering benefits of education. A production of I HAVE A DREAM I directed featured George Wallace screaming "Look at those Niggers Run!!" and a school official wanted to change the word to 'Garbage' as in 'Look at that garbage run..' My cast members called me from the road-- furious not only that this school official felt she could replace George wallace's actual phrase, but that she alone could DECIDE what word to put in it's place. We were all pissed, and the the African-American members of the cast were absolutely and utterly insulted.

    The key is CONTEXT. Take a look at the Context of the word's usage in any given situation. Is it being used as a weapon?? In the case of 'Kramer,' it sure as hell was. Michael Richards allowed himself to get rattled by hecklers. This wasn't Shakespeare, it was a comedy club, and any comic should be ready to deal with hecklers. It ain't masterpiece Theatre. Richards wasn't able to deal with them because he is not a stand-up comedian by trade. He's an actor. And he lost his mind and lashed out. And yes, he offended a LOT of people. He crossed a line, and revealed a deep-seeded attitude about black people which bubbled to the surface in a moment of unguarded rage.

    But let's not act like white people are being opressed here, man. There are no limits to how you can express yourself in this country-- but there are consequences. There is no defending Michael Richards's actions, and bringing up the fact that black people say the n-word too is a superficial argument. Do you WANT to be able to say the N-word without being hassled?? Is that what you're after?? I don't see what it is that you want. it seems like fake outrage. You act like Michael Richards is some sort of a victim here. He made his own bed.

  • At 11/27/2006 9:07 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I love when Scott posts, because we both get to pull out our righteous-indignation-sabers. (Mine is blue like Obi-Wan's.)

    Fake outrage is often a very powerful rhetorical tool, and I employ it frequently. This, however, is moderately real outrage.

    No, I'm not at all defending Michael Richards; I believe I called him a "jackass" and a "fool" on a couple occasions. He was just the catalyst for me to write. I've actually been seething about this since the "niggard" discussion. And I would argue that "kike" has some pretty damn dramatic history behind it as well.

    What if you're half-black? Can you say it? How about a quarter? What if you're light-skinned and have less African features? Can Mariah Carey say it? Or Prince? Or Michael Jackson?

    If this word is so loaded that we're seriously discussing who has a license to even say it, perhaps it's so loaded that no one should be saying it. And plenty of black American leaders agree; for example Bill Cosby (who often makes more sense to me than any other man in America).

    I'm not sure where I stand on this issue, Scott. I just know that my hackles rise when someone tells me I'm not allowed to say something that someone else is, whether or not I would ever want to say it. And I'm mistrustful of a system of political correctness that abridges freedom of expression.

    It wasn't so long ago that I was criticized by a young black woman in a writing class because I had written a story with black characters. She took issue with the fact that the young boy in my story had very dark skin. "Why does he have to have the darkest-colored skin?" she ranted. No context, no nothing; she was offended that a white author had written a black character that was too black.

    So I'm not allowed to use a word because my ancestors haven't experienced the history. (Never mind he miseries that caused my ancestors to flee Ireland and Italy; those are irrelevant because white skin = liable for slavery reparations.) My concern is that disallowing whites from using a word because we don't share a history does nothing to share that history. It's just another kind of segregation; this is for black people, and this is for whites.

    If the word is that loaded, it should be lumped in with f###, s###, c###, and other words we don't use in polite company. If it's not acceptable for Michael Richards, it certainly shouldn't be acceptable to shout at your friend across the schoolyard, and I guarantee I'll hear it six times on the way to my class this morning.

    Speaking of which, I'm late...

  • At 11/27/2006 5:16 PM , Blogger Joey Fanelli said...

    What always got is is how black peoples call themselves and others of their own race "niggers", which is a word meaning ignorant.

    I just think that someone misusing a word to call themselves ignorant is poetic justice at its finest.

    I think this whole story is a waste of time. Who cares if a white guy dropped the N-bomb? Countless black people call white people "crackas" all the time, but we don't her a thing about it.

    If a black comedian were to call a white heckler a Cracker, we would never hear a thing about it. And isn't that the same exact thing in princiaple?

    But it's like you said in class earlier, Hammy. When the news covers something like this for a week, at least we know that no one is bombing America.

  • At 11/28/2006 2:58 AM , Anonymous Harry Hood said...

    'Fake outrage' has NOTHING to do with rhetoric, Andrew. That is an emotional tactic.
    Did you even read anything Scott just said about context? I don't think it's a concept you fully understand.

    By the way, the word is 'nigger'.

  • At 11/28/2006 8:42 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    I read every word Scott wrote about context, four times so far. Did you read anything I wrote about the same subject? Welcome to my blog, Harry. Please stop calling me stupid.

    I simply don't understand how the word can be so powerful and hateful coming from white lips, but "claimed" by a black speaker it loses its "power." I genuinely don't understand it. The vast majority of people using it seem to be of the "40's-hoes-spinning rims-Philly Blunts-fresh kicks-&-gats-are-the most-important-things mentality" Scott was talking about. I'm very familiar with that context; I teach in a school that's at least 85% black. Seriously, what other context is this word being used in? Are black Fortune 500 executives saying, "Give that nigger a promotion!" Are there African-Americans at the NEA deciding "That nigger deserves a huge grant for his socially-conscious playwriting!"

    I've heard it used as an epithet of ignorance by black people many times; I've never heard a white person say it--unless they were quoting rap lyrics. If someone actually does use it in a Jim-Crow-era context, they've betrayed monumental stupidity and ignorance, and have labeled themselves as a moron far more than they have successfully hung a label on anyone in 2006.

    There's a great scene in Glory between Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman in which Washington's character says "nigger" meaning one thing and Freeman's character takes it the other way. Freeman backhands him like a disobedient child and growls, "You watch who you call a nigger... If there's any nigger around here, it's you: stupid-ass, smart-mouth, swamp-running nigger. And if you're not careful, that's all you're ever going to be."

    I'm a big student of history, Scott, especially the Civil War, where 500,000 white people died, many of whom signed up to fight because they were abolitionists. No, I don't for a second want to ignore or forget history, but there's a difference between acknowledging it and wallowing in it. History can propel us forward, or it can hold us back. I can't think of another racial slur in history that has been successfully turned around, so I have to believe that there's no reason to think this one will be any different.

    As far as comedians and artists go, keep on rocking the language, man. Satire is our greatest tool against the ludicrous, and perhaps no idea is more ludicrous than the idea that one race of people is inherently better or worse than another. John Teska, a very funny guy, once said, "The first rule of comedy is that nothing is sacred." I can dig that.

    Perhaps "claiming" a reprehensible word is less effective at taking away its power than ridiculing it into irrelevance is. But if Michael Richards has taught us anything it's that the power is still there in this word. There's a lot of work to be done. I just don't know what that work is.

  • At 11/28/2006 3:27 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    Kudos to you and Scott for being able to have a civil discussion about this topic. It makes me think about many things:

    I agree with many of Scott's points on context but even more important than context, I think, is intent. It always occurs to me how important intent is in our legal system (i.e., the key difference between 1st and 2nd degree murder); I think it is just as important in most walks of life. One of the interesting comments I read in response to the Michael Richards rant was of an audience member who said she kept on waiting for the punchline. The subtext I took from it was that, if his rant had circled around to a joke (i.e., his intent had turned out to be to entertain), his comments would have been taken in a different light. It might have been just clumsy, ill-considered comedy, but not a racist rant, as it came off and most clearly was.

    With intent in mind, if a black person calls another nigger with the intent to be joking or kidding -- and it is understood by all parties -- then my tendency is to say 'live and let live.' (See caveats below) The magazine "Heeb" was greeted with outrage by many Jews but a) that was the point and b) it was part of a Jewish reclaiming exercise like blacks using 'nigger.'

    Just as an aside, I've heard some interesting commentary on the radio about the different between 'nigga' and 'nigger.' At first, I thought this was specious but then thought about it in comparison to Chinese (which I'm studying) wherein slight emphasis changes can make a big difference.

    On a cultural history note, this whole thing echoes an ongoing and sometimes contentious debate in academia about representative art, which it sounds like you were a victim of, Andrew. Questions about whether white male authors can or should adequately capture the experience of other races or sexes have been bandied about for years. The recently deceased William Styron took flack for writing about Jews. Should a man teach a womens' studies class? The questions are endless and I think the answers mostly have to come from the disenfranchised parties. We white guys have too long a history of dominating the discussion, the economics, the politics, and frankly, everything. We can talk all we want but with issues like this mostly I think we need to listen. And any BS about white guys now being the disenfranchised in America is just that, BS. Look at Congress, look at the top CEOs, etc.

    Finally, I have to heartily agree with both you, Andrew, and Bill Cosby in terms of the use of the word 'nigger' in the black community. I defend the rights of African-Americans to use the word if they so choose but, if they do, I don't think they have any right to be surprised that white folks are confused, at least, or angered, at most. Double standards piss people off regardless of race, creed or color.

    I started out thinking I was going to make a coherent point hear but feel I've mostly rambled. Sorry. Maybe we can talk about religion next?

  • At 11/29/2006 8:51 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...


    Your point is plenty coherent. Double standards piss everyone off. But please have mercy on me; I'm trying so hard not to talk about religion.

    I understand the need for divining context and intent, but I question our ability to actually know what someone's intent is without mind-reading. When intent can be demonstrated by showing evidence preparation, like in a murder one charge, I can totally understand that. What we're talking about here is a kind of verbal "hate crime," and I have a real problem with legislating thoughts and intents. Lest we forget, you have a constitutional right to be a racist in this country. You have a right to believe what you like, to preach it, to recruit people to your cause, and to work to get racist legislation passed, up to and including amending the Constitution. Obviously, you're a jackass if you choose this perspective, but you're a legally-protected jackass. It's when you start illegal actions that we step up and say "You can't do that."

    Having watched the Richards footage a few times now, I think he believed he had said the punchline. I think he has gotten used to being "Kramer" and being beloved, and that he hasn't had to deal with a lot of hostile audiences for the past several years. I don't actually think there was deep-seated racist intent at all, I think it was, as you wrote, "just clumsy, ill-considered comedy," intended to shock the perpetrators into silence, get a couple laughs, and move on. Granted, it was very clumsy, and ludicrously ill-considered, but I think he simply spiraled out of control without time to think before acting. And the only thing he did worse than the initial act was trying to fix it by raising the level, as if biggerfasterfunnierbiggerfasterfunnier would solve the problem. Finally, he did one thing very well: he stopped talking and left the stage.

    Sometimes improv goes badly and you can't take it back. He was in the one place he believed a comedian could improvize material this edgy. With a different audience he might very well have been right. If they had just eaten this up, we wouldn't have ever found out about it.

    Regardless of his actual intent, there is a certain amount of imposing intent upon him because of his skin color. He's not getting very much in the way of benefit of doubt; even the initial headlines said "'Kramer' Goes on Racist Rant," rather than "'Kramer' Uses Offensive Language." Big difference there; the former assigns racist intent where the latter just states the facts.

    I had my own Michael Richards moment in graduate school, as part of a group presenting a report on modern Feminism and theatre. I was playing devil's advocate, and I actually wore plastic devil horns to push home the point that the opinions I was expressing were not necessarily my own. The main point that I was making was that, in a Google search for "Feminism," one comes across a disturbing number of websites with horrible HTML and even worse spelling and grammar. In my most sarcastic manner, I said something about how these writers apparently believed that their self-righteousness absolved them of the responsibility to write in English and present their positions in a viewable format. It didn't work. All the nice liberal theatre artists were scandalized. I have never sweated so much in my life. It didn't matter that I was wearing devil horns, it didn't matter that I was exaggerating for (dare I say it?) shock value, and it apparently didn't matter that my actual point was that these women have something to say that is worth expressing it at better than a seventh-grade web design and English level. All that mattered, apparently, was my Y chromosome.

    So I recognized some of the expressions on Richards' face as he tried damage control technique after damage control technique. I think the heart of the matter is just that he's simply not very good at improvizing. I don't think Richards meant anything racist any more than I think Senator Kerry's muffed joke was calling all soldiers stupid. That's what makes theatre most powerful: audience reception is the bottom line.

  • At 11/29/2006 8:55 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 11/29/2006 8:57 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    And incidentally, you're obviously right about politics and business being dominated by straight white males. But I work in the arts and academia, and if you don't think I'm discriminated against because of my race and gender, you and I need to sit down and talk about the university theatre professor job market.

    Discrimination against my demographic in my chosen field is not only accepted, it's institutional, open, and applauded. Never mind that it's illegal.

  • At 11/30/2006 12:57 PM , Blogger PhilBiker said...

    I had the same experience once with the movie "Die Hard 2" and the "F" word. I was flipping channels and just couldn't believe how many F-bombs were dropped over and over and over and over in that movie.

    Remember a few years DC Mayor Anthony Williams caused a major stir by using the sound-alike word "niggardly" in context.

  • At 12/01/2006 8:09 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    It was actually David Howard, a staffer of Mayor Williams. He used the word "niggardly" in a closed, private staff meeting to describe a tight budget. Some black staffers were offended. Williams asked for and accepted Howard's resignation. The Mayor did, however, offer him his job back a couple weeks later, having realized, I suppose, that he was being a blithering idiot.

    Howard was quoted in the Washington Post: "I just feel very pleased that this whole thing has a silver lining. The silver lining is that this has led to a discussion that can help everyone understand each other better. . . . I used to think it would be great if we could all be colorblind. That's naive, especially for a white person, because a white person can't afford to be colorblind. They don't have to think about race every day. An African American does."

    I would argue Howard's story shows us that a white person has to think far far more about race than anyone else in this country, not less.

  • At 12/01/2006 8:10 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Howard is also openly gay, so I hope none of the DC staffers were British smokers. That might have necessitated a whole slew of resignations.

  • At 12/04/2006 12:30 PM , Blogger PhilBiker said...

    One of my favorite bloggers James Howard Kunstler has an interesting take on the incident and the deeper cultural meanings in his blog for this week. Worth a read whether you agree with him or not.

  • At 1/07/2007 12:18 AM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Kunstler's blog is a must-read, Phil. Thanks for bringing it up.


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