Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Boondocks: Aaron McGruder and the N-Word


Been catching-up on the third season of The Boondocks lately. It's still pretty funny, which is surprising considering how often revolutionary/controversial/innovative/original work is co-opted by The Man into something harmless, and boring.

However, thankfully that isn't so. The show is still crazy-awesome-goodness wrapped in a scary-sandwich of controversy and unpopular opinions mixed with true cultural insight. Also the animation has been getting better, and is almost up there with top-ranking Japanese anime.

But whatever. This post isn't about me being a fanboy trying to dick-ride. This is about something else entirely.

The thing I've noticed on this show since I started watching the first season has been the near-constant use of "the N-word". Now, McGruder has defended this by stating it [keeps the show culturally relevant], and how the word is [used in context by many people today], as well as how its use [explores themes of racism], prejudice and other subjects in Black culture, White culture, as well as just-plain American culture.

My girlfriend, on the other hand, didn't even like watching a single clip with me because the word was used so often. (I'll admit, it was a heavily "N-worded" clip.) But not only her; I know many people -- White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and other ethnicities -- who take offense at the word's use, even by members of the ethnicity the word is directed toward.

[An example of a typical Boondocks episode's content.]

Well, I'm not Black (no matter how much I joke about it to my girlfriend that I have a drop of Ethiopian-Jewish blood in me) and will probably never be able to understand what it feels like for someone to call me "the N-word". However, I am Jewish, and unlike many people I know, I've actually been called anti-Semitic slurs to my face before. Sometimes in joking, sometimes in ignorance, but sometimes in all seriousness.

[I've been called a kike], a shyster, a yid, a hymie, skullcap, Christ killer, and other random epithets besides. And while I know the words are offensive, they don't actually bother me. They've never bothered me. Maybe it's because the word is so rarely backed-up by action? Few times when those slurs were used did I fear any sort of violence was going to happen. (Only on a couple of occasions was this not true -- and yet I managed to survive just fine.) Or maybe it's just my temperament? I am not the type to be easily upset by taunts after a lifetime of dealing with them.

I bring this up as a parallel of experience to the subject at hand. Why do some people find "the N-word" is inappropriate, even in the context of art, books, music, or -- in this case -- television, and why do others not? If Fiddler On The Roof suddenly had Tevye singing "if I were a rich kike", I'm not sure I'd be pissed. (Although I might be confused since the word wouldn't exist there yet.) I'm not even sure I'd say anything... And what does that say about me?

But in the case of The Boondocks, I guess you could call it a debate of context versus content. Some people say the word's offensiveness depends on the context it's used in (who uses it, why they use it, what it's being used for, or directed at, etc) while others say that the content of the word (historical associations, connotations, denotations, etc) can never be completely forgotten, and that the word's negativity will constantly be tied to it.

I know when it comes to White people the "rule" about racial/ethnic slurs is that it's okay to use them if a member of said racial/ethnic group uses them first. Although, sometimes, around people who don't know I'm Jewish, there's almost this strange fetish to use oft forbidden slurs, as if alternatively hypnotized by and afraid of their use.

However, this isn't just a common White tendency (just one that I notice more than others) because plenty of other racial/ethnic groups do much the same thing -- some even ask for my permission or try to seek my permission to use slurs! Like I hold the rubber-stamp of approval on words such as "kike" or "heeb"...

The confusing thing in regards to The Boondocks is that would the show be as relevant (or as controversial) if "the N-word" were not used? How necessary is it to the overall theme of each episode, and the show in general?

I, for one, am not sure. But I do find evidence for the word's... evolution.

In high school, only "nigger" was considered "the bad N-word". Alternatives like "nigga" or "nig" were considered hip, and cool, even militant. You still couldn't say them if you were White (or Asian) but everyone else could -- and frequently did -- especially Hispanics and the few Black students at my high school.

With The Boondocks, not only do you find the word's original pronunciation distorted to "nigga" and sometimes "nig", but also a whole host of others such as: "nikka", "necka", "neeuhguh" and "nyukuh". It's gotten to the point that I can't even tell if they're actually saying "the N-word" or just making random gibberish.

[Example of "the N-word" being used in a phonetic variant]

It did inspire me as to an idea to solve the problem of using "the N-word" versus not using it. If reappropriation, reclamation, depowering, cultural relevancy, and etc is the goal, then perhaps we should just evolve the word even further. And I was thinking of several alternatives... with the best one (and at the time, funniest) I could think of was: nickel.

Yes, I am half-jokingly advocating we change "the N-word" to nickel. Every time someone wants to say "nigger", they say nickel. In Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson wouldn't have to use "the N-word" 38 times (according to Spike Lee) because he can just use nickel! Same message of cultural relevancy, only with the added bonus of not being "the N-word" while simultaneously being "fresh" for its newness.

But seriously, from my White-Jewish perspective, "the N-word's" useage doesn't offend me so much as the ignorance surrounding it. I'm sure there are legitimate uses of the word by people from all races (hell, I've even used it in a poem I wrote about Black Hebrews) but I'm also sure that there are people from all races who use the word ignorantly, inappropriately, and without consideration for its negative connotations to a lot of people.

So then, what does poor Aaron McGruder do? Would characters like Riley Freeman sound as genuine if they refrained from using "the N-word"? Would it signify an artistic compromise by McGruder that would hurt other artists trying for controversy to provoke discussion and explore our own culture's racism? More pertinently, would The Boondocks be the same without the word? And if so, what does that say about the show? What does that say about us as the audience?

I guess I'll leave the answers to ya'll in the comments.


3 footnotes:

Jasmin said...

I feel like my annoyance(?) with the N-word is similar to my feelings about people who curse unnecessarily--it seems more like an attempt to be hip or relevant or whatever and just comes off as if the person is trying way too hard.

I don't watch "The Boondocks"--I've probably seen 1.25 episodes-- though I liked the comic strip when it ran in our local newspaper. Now, I think Aaron McGruder is another one of those self-proclaimed "I'm going to say what I want to say, screw what everyone thinks" artists who's really just in it for the controversy. And that's how I feel most people who use the N-word frequently are: (usually ignorant) wannabes. But at least when he uses it, it pays the bills--what does anyone else get out of it?

I don't associate with people who use the N-word, because they are usually too crude for my liking (they curse too much, etc.). I'd distinguish between Blacks and non-Blacks using it though--when Blacks do it, I call it ignorant. When non-Blacks use it, it's offensive.

I could go into a long diatribe about how non-Black co-opting of variations of the N-word is just another example of the fetishization of "real" (read: thuggish) Black culture, but this is long enough, so I'll stop now. :-)

Zek J Evets said...

that's an interesting separation of interpretation you've got there, between blacks using the word and non-blacks using it. i'm inclined to agree with you -- at least in practice -- because i've always felt that each group, and the individuals of that group, have the right to define it and themselves however they want. thus, as a jew i feel perfectly free to say kike all i want, but the n-word is off-limits.

however, i'm still something of a hypocrite, because i've used various racial-slurs in some of my own creative writing. and while i can't ever prove that i could've written the work(s) differently to avoid the word and still be good, i still think the word's use in the work(s) was necessary to convey the overall point.

i'm also inclined to agree with your assessment of mcgruder. he does love controversy. hell, that's how he gets people to check-out his work. however, i wouldn't say his useage is ignorant because of that. he seeks controversy, but i think he does so to get people thinking. if the audience wasn't challenged, wasn't offended, they might be complacent to take what he says in one ear and just forget about it as it goes right out the other.

for myself though, i'll always have to tread carefully when it comes to my writing, because while racism is a part of the world (which is often what i write about) i want to convey my opposition to it, instead of fetishizing it.

Jasmin said...

I think there's a thin line of appropriateness/offensiveness when it comes to racial/ethnic slurs and art (film, television, books, etc.). I've most often seen White writers fall into pitfalls when they excuse their use of racial slurs by hearkening to "authenticity". By that I mean that their stereotypes of Blacks (or Jews, or Mexicans, or Asians) are what they paint as "authentic", even though it doesn't really speak to the experience of the larger community. So it becomes a way for White writers to get a vicarious "thrill" of being controversial while never questioning their own biases and privileges. Do you notice how racial slurs are often used as a shortcut to designating skinheads, KKK, etc. as the "real" racists? It's just a way to separate the "good White folks" from the ignorant few, as if saying "nigger" is the defining characteristic of racism.

I think Aaron McGruder may claim he wants to get people thinking, but he's just another person out for a check (which is his perogative, capitalist society and all that). He's not a politician or an activist, so enacting change isn't on his agenda. (I'll admit that I'm generally one of those people who refuses to link art to activism--unless you are giving speeches or mobilizing the public, your "social consciousness" means jack to me.)