Words Matter

I have a few friends who lean to the right. I gotta say though, most of my friends lean to the left. The subject of social justice is contentious in both groups, but from different angles. Recently, I had a conversation with my friend about racism and privilege. He is pretty conservative, but has a lot of liberal views. Who knows; maybe he considers himself a Libertarian.

The conversation turned to language. How do we use language, what is appropriate language, etc. During the conversation, he said it. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen. I saw it coming about 10 seconds before it actually happened, and watched as it rolled off his tongue and landed on the floor in front of me. I refused to give him an emotional response. I did not flinch or gasp or roll my eyes or anything. No. I held my mud and replied simply, “that’s fucked up. And here is why…”

My bro is white, does reasonably well for himself, grew up in the Bay Area of Northern California. He is a lot like me, and very different. A couple years older. Our kids used to play together. Generous, compassionate, loving, critical, engaged, prayerful; these are words I use to describe him. I love him. I love his family. He is my brother, metaphorically and in how he fits in my life.

“I don’t think it makes any sense that blacks can call me honkey or cracker and that’s ok, but I can’t call them a n**ger.”

Dang. I mean, I know that my bro is little rough around the edges. He has spent his life in a blue collar profession. He grew up on some moderately rough streets that adjoined some Really Rough Streets. He is just as apt to stand up from the table when someone’s mother or father enter the room, as he is to say, “shut up and pass the fucking potatoes.” It is not uncommon to see him scratching his crotch in public. It is also not uncommon to see him listening intently to my daughters or his sons as they explain the nuances of how the dragon came and blasted the village with fire and luckily their Band of Heroes was on site to rescue the town folk but now are being chased by the evil wizard’s minions and… He’s an all around guy.

But still, this is simply too much. Since the moment he said that, I have been struggling to understand my relationship with this man I love. That really sucks. Not because he said that word. Any of you who are reading this who think this is some PC kick; get a grip. A word is a word. The problem lies with the history and context of the word.

So rather than skulk around with dismissive thoughts toward my bro, I am writing this. I want to write down, and expand a little, what I told my bro when he dropped that nice neat piece of racism on my living room floor. While it steamed and stank on the hardwood, I looked him in the eye and said, “…here is why…”

We, white guys, get all the breaks. It is just that way. Here we are, my brother and I, at the outset of the 21st century, living in America, good jobs and decent homes. The world of privileges we enjoy has a history. That history has contributed to our privileges.


No, no, no, no. I do not mean that he and I have “good jobs and decent homes,” BECAUSE we are white. Not at all. What I am saying is that whites and blacks are represented unequally in our institutions. The unequal representation is a signal of something. It is the result of a history. Blacks make up 58% of incarcerated youth and yet, under 15% of the nation’s total population. Median income for black households is about 65% of the median income for white households. 27% poverty rate, compared to the national rate of 15%. In positions of power, the 113th Congress has 42 African American Members of the House and 2 in the Senate. That is almost 10% of Congress and 2% of the Senate. Still not quite up to the 14.2% of African American people in the United States. I have not done the research for corporate America, but I ask the question; when was the last time you heard of the corporate board of a Fortune 500 company which was 15% black?

Over represented in our prisons, and underrepresented in institutions of power. Sorry, the fact that our President is black does NOT mean that racism is dead. My bro threw that one at me. It would be like saying that because the Secretary of State is a woman, sexism is dead. (or maybe people expect that once we have a woman for President, all women’s troubles will be a thing of the past…) The facts are these disparities come from somewhere. It was not as if all these people were shaken out across this continent and it Just Happens To Be that whites hold power while blacks do time. No No NO. The history of slavery has brought us to this place. Racism ain’t over yet. There is more work to be done.

Now, I don’t want to be “that white guy” talking about all the horrors of slavery and Jim Crow. It bothers me when I read white folks writing like that. So look elsewhere if you want that kind of stuff. It is not my place. What is my place is to recognize that I and people who look like me, have benefited from slavery and Jim Crow. And, we continue to benefit from these systems. My white privilege follows me wherever I go (go ahead; make an argument that …as a white guy I have fear when entering certain neighborhoods. That’s true. But, I also know that IF I had trouble in a neighborhood like that and the cops finally arrived, chances are high they would handcuff the black person and give me a bottle of water to help calm my nerves. So whatever. Fear is NOT the same as racism!) I told my bother this. We are privileged. We have advantages. This is the starting point to why I will not use that word.

My privilege is built upon the suffering of others. If a black man calls me cracker, while I wouldn’t like that, it does not have the same charge, impact, history, pain, or atrocity associated with it as if I called a black man by that other word. Cracker refers to the guy “cracking the whip.” That is horrific in and of itself, but it has not contributed to MY suffering in this world one little bit. But, when a white guy starts throwing the N word around, he is calling forth a history of suffering that is STILL NOT HEALED.

Is this making sense?

The over privileging of white people is why language matters. It is simply NOT OK. It does not matter if your friend said it is ok. Or if you have black friends. Or your sister-in-law is black and she doesn’t have a problem with it. Really, it is not so much a problem of offending people (although that is part of the problem); it is about maintaining the thoughts and systems of inequity and oppression. It is about asserting white dominance and supremacy. It is about conjuring a history of atrocity and a present full of inequity. Is that really what you believe in? If you are white, and you WANT to continue the disparity, then please, by all means, use the hate language. Get the fuck out of my house and don’t come back, but have fun with all your stinking racist epithets. If, on the other hand, you actually understand why the oppression and disparity is a bad thing (if I have to explain THAT part, then you are reading the wrong blog), then do your best to end it. Stop grasping for your excess privilege to justify words and actions which perpetuate racism.

Well, my bro side-eyed me. I am not sure if he understood or not. I guess, next time if he returns to visit, I will find out. In the interim, maybe he heard me and takes the time to consider our conversation.

I hope he did.


Silverback Gringo


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