Race, Gender & Media: Bamboozled and the “n-word”

This is the third of six weekly blogs for my J375 class, Race, Gender and Media. This week I will offer my thoughts on Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and the use of the “n-word.”

One of the issues that Bamboozled touched upon was “blackness” and “black identity.” Who owns it? Who or what defines it? And my personal question is why do we even have to?

In Bamboozled, the white television executive is made an object of ridicule by trying to “act black,” including his liberal use of the “n-word.” I think a white person attempting to “act black” is just as silly as a black person trying to “act black.” I don’t think you can define a person or group of people by race. I’m a Christian, an American, a brother, a son, a boyfriend, a student, a cartoonist, etc. “a white person” is pretty far down the list. I think very few people, when asked to describe themselves, will begin by identifying their race. Why should they? It’s so limiting. Every person is unique! It doesn’t make sense to try to define race-associated behavior or assign that behavior to a person or a group of people. That right there is continuing to perpetuate stereotypes. You can no more “act black” than you can “act white.” There are good and bad black people just as there are good and bad white people. People are individuals regardless of their race.

My opinion doesn’t seem to be shared by many people, however. No one can deny that Bamboozled is thought-provoking. Would a minstrel show, if shown today, be accepted by a mass audience? I would like to think that it wouldn’t, because of the blatant nature of the “satire.” But when you look at culture today, you have to wonder… An audience that regularly accepts music that uses the n-word is seen as acceptable by a great many people: white and black. It’s used as a term of endearment, mainly by blacks to other blacks. It is seen as acceptable because blacks are the ones using the word. However, if a white person were to put out similar songs that used the same language, it would likely be seen as unacceptable. Why? If the word is so grossly offensive in and of itself, why aren’t we offended when anyone uses it? Why only for some people?

We see the n-word as being “owned” by blacks. This goes back to what defines “blackness,” and who “owns” it. I think that everything, words being only one example, shouldn’t be “owned” by anyone. That only serves to divide us further. A classic example, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continues to be assaulted by those who would wish to remove the n-word from the sight of children:

NewSouth Books’ upcoming edition of Mark Twain’s seminal novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn will remove all instances of the “n” word—I’ll give you a hint, it’s not nonesuch—present in the text and replace it with slave. The new book will also remove usage of the word Injun. The effort is spearheaded by Twain expert Alan Gribben, who says his PC-ified version is not an attempt to neuter the classic but rather to update it. “Race matters in these books,” Gribben told PW. “It’s a matter of how you express that in the 21st century.”

I don’t think ignoring the word will solve anything, either. The world will still exist: kept alive by those racist towards blacks, or in rap songs! Attempting to limit its use is no solution, and definitely not a free speech-friendly way of solving things, either. I think the ultimate solution was expressed effectively by the comedian Lenny Bruce: to simply stop giving it power.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It is difficult to propose or practice a solution of this sort in the society we live in today without being labeled a racist. I prove this by not using the actual “n-word” in this blog post. Even with an academic approach, I’m not sure if using the word in this post would hurt my grade. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were possible to remove all the horrible and hurtful feelings associated with that word? Or maybe the question should be, is it even possible?

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