Kane Watch: Feeling for Gene
In his Sunday column, Eugene Kane writes about his experience in trying to convince inner-city African-American students to remove the N-word from their lexicon.
I've gotta say, I sympathize with the guy.
"It doesn't mean anything to us," responded one student to a talk Kane gave to a class at Washington High School on the historical meaning of the word.
Like me, Kane believes it's a word best purged from our language entirely (of course, I would hope that this came about as the result of people understanding its negative connotations and refusing to make use of it rather than any law that would inherently violate First Amendment rights). So when he speaks directly to those using the word with the greatest frequency and tries to make them understand how detrimental it is, I can understand his frustration. In spite of Kane frequently stating that "it's different for blacks"...an assertion ripe with double-standards whenever its pulled out in reference to non-blacks using the word...he has consistently stood by his belief that we'd all be better off if the word was no longer used.
But after reading what these kids have to say, my opinion has slightly changed. Although I'm fairly certain the students' opinion on the word is mostly based on youthful ignorance, essentially what these kids have done is disarm the word, at least in their minds. By using it as a term of endearment or completely out of its original context, they remove all the hate it possesses.
As someone who shudders over the thought of any sort of censorship, or the thought-police knocking down my door merely for words I utter, in some perverse way there's a light of hope in these children's attitudes. They are declaring that words cannot hurt them. They are taking the old cliche of "sticks and stones" and making it a reality. Granted, it may not be intentional, but the outcome is intriguing. When one of the most disgusting words in our language comes into common use not because of overt racism but simply since it's lost its harmful clout, could this be an initial step towards a society in which victims no longer exist just because of a word spoken about them?
Of course, racists will still exist. And those racists will still attempt to use such words as insults. But if the recipients of the insult treat it as just a word, and nothing more, the racist loses yet another weapon in his arsenal.
I'm not saying this is the future. I'm not saying this is the intent of the students Kane spoke with. All I'm saying is that maybe we can find a little wisdom in the ignorance.