Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Vancouver Sun tries to create context for Jonathan Rhys Meyers' racist language

Trigger warning for discussion of racist language.

Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who has been in and out of rehab and is now back in rehab, recently got drunk and was subsequently thrown off a flight. During the commission of the ejection, he yelled the n-word at a United Airlines employee. The Vancouver Sun explained it thusly:
Now however, further details have emerged about Meyers' JFK incident. RadarOnline report that the Irishman used the 'N' word during the scuffle. It's still unclear whether Meyers directed the comment at someone in particular or simply blurted it out with no specific target in mind.
I’m sorry. Is this ever a word to be “simply blurted with no specific target in mind”? What could be simple about it? N----r is a word that is, in most cases, very specifically directed at a specific racial group. It’s an extremely taboo word around the world for a reason.

N----r is not fuck. Or shit. Or Christ. It is not an exclamation out of nothing, out of frustration, out of context.

It is not something that slops over the lip of our mouth accidentally when our vocabulary is stumbling through alcohol. Even in anger, it’s not a word that just occur without a target. Even among racists. I’ve been around drunk and unrepentant racists, and it most certainly does slop over and out. In a joke, about specific people, the people in nearby cars, a service worker. It is always used to specifically prove their supremacy as a white person.

The wording above on the part of the Sun is probably a conscious attempt to give Meyers the benefit of the doubt. But used by a white privileged man towards people he considers beneath him (airline workers), there is no room for that benefit. This word choice reflects a choice to minimize the seriousness of this slur. Author inserts doubt about whether or not it was an act aimed at a specific person where it is unnecessary; the usual conditions for using the word make it clear enough that there was a target. This is an act of white privilege in action.

I suppose I could be wrong. I suppose the Sun could be right to give him the benefit of the doubt. I suppose it could be that there were no black people around at all, but while it is n----r is not limited to black people. I guess it is possible that everyone around Meyers was white.

But even under these rather unlikely conditions, it’s still horrifically fucking racist. Honestly, all that needs to be reported is the presence of this word in his rant. That is very well enough to tell me how to view Meyers in the future.

There’s not a lot more I have to say about my distaste for Meyers and the idea that this word is something that could just slip out (even if that’s what it is). But I'm going to turn it over to Siditty , who wrote on the still-present use of the word by white people last year:

White people still use the word. They don't always use it out in the open, but some do use it, and often. You should read my emails and the comments that don't make it on this blog. I can remember the 1st time I heard the n-word, my family and some of their friends were called the n-word by a man when I was a little kid at a carnival, not too far from a "sundown town". I was born after the era of Jim Crow, and my blog and email address were established after Jim Crow as well. I know this is shocking, but in the year 2009, racism still exists. I say this often, but people tend to forget this all the time, and it concerns me.
This is a disgusting act from Meyers, a sign of his considerable privilege as a white, rich, famous man. His language is already being erased in other accounts of the incident and his return to rehab. The presence of this word is reprehensible regardless of context, and the attempt to create one is indicative of the Sun’s privileged point of view.

Further reading:

Womanist Musings: "Go Ahead Say Nigger" & "The Power of Nigger"
What Tami Said: "About 'The N Word'"

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