August 29, 2016

ON MY MIND | Wake Up Mr. Kim: On Asians Who Say the N-word

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Photo Courtesy of Vocativ, Illustration Credits to Diana Quach

Hello! Today I want to talk about why it’s not okay for non-black people of color – specifically Asian and Pacific Americans – to say the N-word. But before we can do that, I need you to chew on this interesting and relevant anecdote:

Picture me, Spring, 2015.

The air was brimming with promise as I contemplated the two glimmering stars compelling me towards a sweet horizon – a.k.a. high school graduation and Kanye West’s supposed new album So Help Me God SWISH Waves The Life of Pablo. On an otherwise nondescript sunny day in March, I found myself at one of several school-sponsored “parties” for our graduating class. Bored of the dusty Top 40 hits of yesteryear, my Chinese American friend and I brazenly approached the DJ and requested Yeezy’s new single “All Day.”

A certifiable banger that never appeared on an album that would arrive a whole year later, “All Day” caught flak for Kanye’s liberal application of the N-word as per the song’s inescapable, tongue-in-cheek hook “All day, n***a.” When his live debut performance of the song at the 2015 BRIT Awards was bleeped out by British networks to a comical degree, some hip-hop fans voiced their derision at the blatant censorship; meanwhile, the internet was blessed/cursed with more gifs of Taylor Swift dancing at award shows.

I personally took this derision as implicit permission to scream the full hook whenever I could – in the car by myself or with my friends, who were invariably white or yellow like me. For some reason, though, my friend and I both understood that yelling the N-word on this particular occasion was a bad idea. Neither of us wanted to risk getting in trouble at a school event, being the model (minority) students that faculty and parents trusted us to be. More poignantly, in a public space that included not just us but also an actual black person (the DJ), we were suddenly afraid to say a word that, moments earlier, flowed so casually from our mouths.

On another occasion, I remember defending my right to use the N-word – “It’s okay to say it as long as it’s in a song!” – to a black classmate of mine. These kinds of memories, which are embarrassingly recent, often come back to leave a bad taste of regret and shame in my mouth. And I have to admit, even profusely apologetic turns like this article feel like hollow moments of self-aggrandizement that can’t begin to make up for a huge string of moments where I disrespected and devalued black lives via appropriating black culture.

I know that a large portion of young people in the Asian American community don’t see this as something worthy of apology. Some of us say “n***a” but not “n****r,” thinking that that’s sufficient differentiation; some of us reserve it for punchlines; some of us say it to fit into a society that has never fully accepted us. Some of us believe that, because its usage has become so normalized in our everyday lingo by popular media, or because one of our black friends didn’t vocally object when we greeted them with “What’s up my n***a!”, or because Asians can’t even technically be racist anyway, anyone who does call us out for captioning our Instagrams with a particular Drake lyric is a thin-skinned, over-sensitive SJW asshole.

I mean, there are so many terrible things happening in the world – who gives a shit about one word? And don’t I have the right to free speech?

To which I would respond with a pithy quote from a film “film-lovers” love to let others know they know about: “You’re not wrong [about the free speech part]. You’re just an asshole.”

That’s right! Maybe you (I don’t mean you, specifically, unless I do mean you, specifically) and I are racist, stubborn, hypocritical assholes! Let’s ponder this.

Maybe when we start regurgitating protestations about free speech, we’re only digging ourselves into holes that don’t grant the proper perspective to consider a whole landscape of human morality. Or perhaps when we use our minority status to justify our inalienable right to keep using the N-word, we’re only demonstrating our own selfishness, our own social ineptitude and historical illiteracy. We might, somehow, be refusing to acknowledge the deep-seated racism in our own communities towards black and brown people. There’s even a chance that, by pressuring black people to “just chill” about our casual use of a word that has been a tool for enslavement, segregation and dehumanization for centuries, we’re blindly jostling our way into each black individual’s unknown, complicated relationship with that word. We might, conceivably, be reinforcing a power structure that has always placed black lives at the bottom while granting privilege to Asian and Pacific Americans. And for all we know, it’s precisely that privilege which allows us to don a caricature of blackness when it suits our amusement but shed it when we need to be seen as model minorities.

If you’re still feeling iffy about it, I can attest from personal experience that the amount of mental energy required to omit a single word from your vocabulary when you’re alone in your car becomes negligible over time. Your nightly companions won’t notice that word’s absence amidst the reverberating jungles of wet bodies as your little group spills from one frat-house basement to another on a warm Saturday night, nor will the quality of your Groupme memes be tarnished in any discernible way. Simply stopping is relatively easy; the hard part is calling out others – because despite what Facebook would have us believe, the bogeyman of the SJW thought-policer has not infiltrated every nook and niche of our daily interactions. Racism is alive and thriving in our lives today.

But remember: there are ways to resist a racist society that stigmatizes Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners, fetishizes Asian women and emasculates Asian men that don’t involve harmful appropriation – but they each have to start with an open admission of guilt for our own participation in that racist society.

It’s time to wake up.