Unfit for a crown

What do a Washington-state beauty queen and several Southern rednecks have in common?

It’s not a joke, although it sounds like the beginning of a bad one. Unfortunately, the answer to the question is even worse than a bad joke: the beauty queen and the rednecks are lily-white yet they believe it’s just fine, thank you very much, to use the n-word.

That ugly word’s deep-seated aura of hatred and despair should see it banished forever from the American lexicon. But, no, white-skinned bigots, dullards and rubes all across the land believe it’s theirs to use.

In a country with a robust record of defending free speech — even awful speech — why is this one term dangerously problematic? Two words: Ahmaud Arbery. Wait. Considering the countless other Black men who suffered fates similar to Arbery’s, it’s a whole lot more than two words.

Although known for my occasional blue language, I do maintain a short list of words I simply won’t say, ever. The n-word is one of those. I won’t even quote someone else saying it, although I wanted to for this column because the word is so jarring. If I’d used it here, I would’ve hoped to evoke the disgust I feel when people like Washington-state beauty queens and Southern rednecks use it.

The reigning Miss Teen Washington ignited all manner of controversy when a video of her using the n-word resurfaced last week. Seventeen-year-old Kate Dixon is set to represent the state of Washington at the upcoming Miss Teen USA pageant, but increasing voices on social media are calling for her expulsion from the competition.

The TikTok video shows Dixon and a friend singing a vulgar audio track and using the n-word. The video has received nearly 8 million views.

I won’t attempt to defend a privileged, immature white girl who believes she can say that word. Not even when it was three years ago when she said it at age 14 — c’mon, it’s been common knowledge among youth that such slurs were absolutely unacceptable way before 2018.

Dixon’s rambling semi-apology spoke volumes about her lack of understanding how this one word can cut. Frankly, I have great difficulty believing her lengthy apology — Dixon spent way more time trying to explain and blame the slur away than she did in humble remorse. I believe she’s lying. She was caught.

Do I believe Dixon regrets saying the n-word? Of course she regrets it. But, in my opinion, her regret is tied directly to the difficulty she’s experiencing in the court of public opinion and the threat to her crown. I do not believe she is mature enough to understand the deep and ancient hurt her casual and privileged use of that word can cause. Maybe someday, but not today.

Then there was the evidence submitted this week in the federal hate crimes trial of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, the trio who ambushed a Black jogger and killed him.

On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was out jogging in Glynn County, Georgia. As Arbery ran, Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, decided Arbery was a thief so they pursued him, then unlawfully detained him before shooting Arbery three times as the unarmed Black man tried to defend himself. Blessedly, Bryan recorded the entire series of crimes on his cell phone.

The trio was convicted of felony murder, aggravated assault and other charges. The McMichaels were sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole plus 20 years. Bryan got life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 30 years.

Last week, these three bigots were tried on federal hate crimes charges. Naturally, defense counsel tried to play down and explain away damning evidence submitted by prosecutors but no intelligent adult could interpret the trio’s own words as anything other than hate-filled.

When text messages and social media posts by Travis McMichael and Bryan were read in court, their bigoted language was shockingly coarse enough to earn a courtroom warning from prosecutors beforehand. Even the defense was forced to acknowledge the unusually nasty nature of the bigots’ own words.

Bryan and McMichael used racist words routinely. All three publicly supported vigilantism. The junior McMichael disliked Black people intensely enough to wish them dead. He referred to Black people as “animals,” “criminals,” “monkeys” and “subhuman savages.” An overweight Black woman was the “walrus.” All three men used the n-word liberally.

Sorry, folks, that’s hate. But as repugnant as this case is, there’s a little poetic justice in using a defendant’s own words to illustrate just how he feels about things. The McMichaels and Bryan made their (eventually fatal) feelings crystal clear.

Now, I hope it’s obvious I am not equating a privileged, ignorant, white teenage girl with armed redneck bigots looking for a fight. Yes, one is far worse than the other. Nevertheless, cavalier use of racist words is arguably an open door to the bigoted way of life. Put another way, one of the first practices of a foolish youth who will eventually become a hardened adult bigot is liberal use of racist language.

It boils down to this: white people, you cannot say the n-word. Not even if you have friends who say it. Not even if you have friends of color who say it. Not even if you’re quoting someone else. Not even if you’re singing along with a rap song. You can’t say it. Ever.

You do not understand the hundreds-year history of hatred and despair that word evokes for so many Black Americans. You do not understand it and you could not possibly understand it without living it. White people do not get to say that word.

Still, sometimes oafish white people vomit out words of pain because they don’t realize those terms cut people who have lived decidedly different lives. And sometimes those outbursts are just stupid gaffes — words of the clueless that, nevertheless, can be occasionally transformed into teachable moments.

As I’ve pointed out more than once, radical change has always relied upon attrition to achieve its end. But while attrition sees the bitter holdouts literally drop dead, the process is ponderously slow and, well, not particularly satisfying from any perspective other than the cynical. Nevertheless, I do believe redemption is possible for some.

Redemption? Yeah, remember that? Redemption was that thing where we allowed people to humbly atone for their mis-steps, blunders and moral lapses back before we decided canceling them was both more fun and more satisfying now that we’ve learned to wield social media like a cudgel.

In the end, I have little sympathy for the Washington-state beauty queen and the Southern rednecks. None have demonstrated humility or heartfelt contrition.

Is redemption possible for people like Dixon? Sure, but, for her, it’s probably not going to come without some maturity and a genuine effort at empathy. And the queen may yet lose her crown.

What about the McMichaels and Bryan? Even they are not beyond redemption but their atonement — if it ever happens — will take place where it belongs, behind prison walls.

Redemption is one thing. Justice is quite another.

Photocomposite © 2022 Nojan Namdar and Ussama Azam via Unsplash

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