The N Word

I had an interesting discussion on the way home from a conference once. I’d just done a workshop on diversity issues in a healthcare workplace, and was approached by one of the participants as I was packing away my laptop. This is usually the time when I get the best questions: the ones people are afraid to ask in front of colleagues and workmates.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”


“Why is it that black people think it’s OK for them to say [the N word] but not anyone else?” My interlocutor was white, and I’m Latino.

“Honestly, can’t say for sure. Probably have to take a poll. But something tells me you’re more interested in letting me know what you think about the matter.”

“I just think it’s unfair when blacks use the word but white people aren’t supposed to.”

“You really want to use the word, don’t you?”

“No, that’s not my point at all!”

“Oh, then it’s the principle of the thing – you want the freedom to be able to use that word.”

“No, not quite.”

“Well, then can we say that you see issues of justice here?”

“Yes, sort of. I just think if a word is wrong or inappropriate, then nobody should be allowed to use it. Period, the end.”

“Final answer.”

“Final answer.”

“Final solution.”

“The solution is for everybody to follow the rules, regardless of race.”

“No exceptions.”

“No. Aren’t we supposed to be a race-blind society?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? I thought that was the point of lectures like these!”


“Whatever. So you think that’s right?”

“Are you sure you want to know what I think?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“Well, I think there’s a lot of history tied up in that word, history people like me can only hope to understand through books, on the outside, because we’ve never had to live it from the inside. At least not in the same way.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make excuses for bad behavior.”

“You know, what’s really interesting to me about conversations like this?”

“No, what?”

“Questions like this: who gets to decide what bad behavior is? Who’s invited into the conversation that decides what’s right and wrong in a particular situation? And who gets the last word?”

“Look, you’re not answering my question. Are you trying to tell me saying [the N word] is OK?”

“I think for some people, in some settings, yes. And I think for other people in other settings, no. You’ll notice, for example, that I always say ‘the N word’ instead of the word you just used.”

“So you agree with me that the word’s just not right.”

“No, I didn’t say that. What I said is it depends on the speaker and circumstance. What I also think is that the N word is an incredibly powerful one which doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to a group of people with a particular history and story to tell – about things such as the N word.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make excuses again.”

“And it sounds to me like you’re playing judge and jury again.”

“Why? Just because I’m white and I have an opinion about the word [the N word]? Please!”

“Well to be frank, given the history I find deeply important and you find a distraction, I’m deeply suspicious of attempts on the part of white people to tell people of color what they can and can’t say.”

“Oh you guys really all stick together, don’t you?”

“Look, let me ask you this: do you feel your civil liberties are at stake in this discussion?”

“You’re damn right I do.”

“Freedom of speech, things like that?”


“Then let me suggest that, in your gut at this very moment, are the emotional seeds that’ll connect you in a very felt way to the history I’m talking about.”

“I don’t get your point.”

“What I’m saying is, follow your outrage. If I’m right, it’s trying to speak the language of social justice, right and wrong, no?”

“All right, I’ll agree with that.”

“Then all I’m saying is that your concerns are not entirely different, in substance, from those of the people you’re criticizing.”

“Yeah, but the difference is they’re trying to take away freedoms from people like you and me.”

“And I can imagine how you feel about things like affirmative action.”

“Don’t get me started.”

“Of course. Look, I’m just about to miss my train.”

“Oh, I’m sorry – go, go.”

“Can I ask you a favor?” I handed him my card. “E-mail me so we can finish up this conversation some other time?”



Dude, It’s So Not About You

A couple of recent events really bring a pet peeve of mine to life. That is the tendency on the part of certain individuals to (often obnoxiously) direct attention to themselves when they feel it is being inappropriately directed elsewhere.

The most obvious recent instance is that of Kanye West, who, as we all know, rudely interrupted Taylor Swift in the process of receiving an award for best video. This was rude and uncalled for, sure. I’m sure even Kanye would admit that now.

But why did he do it?

Then just a few days later, the President of the United States of America is addressing a joint session of Congress. A Republican congressman – who forever earned himself the title of impudent whelp with this one – gets up and yells, “you lie!”

Why did Joe Wilson do this?

I suspect, in both cases, it was because the gentlemen (I use the term loosely) in question felt a particular form of injustice was being committed. This is an injustice that they alone were in a position to point out (but not to redress – that’s up to us), and which admits to only one form of solution. At least under the exigencies of the moment.

What each gentleman did was hog the spotlight, and cry out in pain. “My pal Beyonce should have gotten the award!” “I hate the President!”

Now why didn’t these fine gents do something with their displeasure other than inflict it upon as wide an audience as possible? For instance, why couldn’t they have contained their outrage long enough to speak to someone privately, write a letter, or confess their sentiments to a reporter afterwards?

Why, indeed, did each bolt out onto the stage (in their own way), take the mike, and express what’s on their mind?

The key word here, of course is their. Not what’s on Beyonce’s mind, and most certainly not what was on Taylor Swift’s or the the President’s. Their mind. Why theirs?

I suspect because each felt a unique form of personal injury. Under most conditions, things that hurt us get worse under conditions of greater attention. But some injuries, interestingly, seem to demand it.

These injuries hog the spotlight the way tumors hog blood supplies: you’d get a sense the entity in question would die without its oxygen. So when does attention equal oxygen and what’s at risk of suffocation in these cases?

Well, what’s dying (if only it could be permitted to do so quietly!) is the image each of these gentlemen hold of themselves. Each of them, unwittingly, and usually with the help of friends, family members, society, and other enablers, has allowed their self-esteem to become hitched to an idea.

On the one hand, that Beyonce should have won. On the other, well, that someone else should be president.

When that idea dies, each of these individuals die, a thousand deaths, on the inside. That’s because, for whatever reasons, they’ve come to identify so much with the idea that their identities are tied up with them. Just look at or ask any sports fan who they love and who they hate.

And so some people cry out in pain, for relief: “save my idea!” Tragic thing is, they cry out in ways that almost secure their loss of social status, credibility, and likability. But cry they do nevertheless, and they need our help, like it or not.

Their favorite didn’t win. Did you hear that, nationally televised audience? They’re upset, and you should be too. And here they are to tell you all about it. You should thank them.

Of course, if you don’t share their view, then you must be their sworn enemy. Either that or just another piece of furniture.

And guess who gets to decide your ontological status!

This is the kind of injury that, for very good reasons, just cannot be kept private. That’s because the solution is believed to be – that is to say, deeply experienced as – something that can only come from the outside. Each of these people is seeking their liberator, the person who can set things right for them, reassure them, or cure them.

Cure them from what? Well, to be specific, from the relentless assaults on the integrity of their experience. That’s what Rush, Beck, and Dobbs do so well for them: reassure them that everything’s going to be ok, that there’s nothing morally wrong with them for being so afraid and hating so much, and that big daddy is going to make them feel like a grown-up again.

The biggest threat to these demagogues is the healer: someone who can put out the fires raging inside some people instead of throwing lighter fluid on them. You know, someone empathic, who can speak effectively to people’s pain…like any recent Democratic presidents you know?

Of course Rush hates Obama. But he’s got to love what the man’s has done for his ratings.

But back to the pain. All of us, without knowing it, not only like to feel like a whole person, but need to. When we don’t, it’s one of the worst feelings around. Try to remember the last time your head and heart were not on speaking terms. Now imagine feeling like this every time you turn on the TV and someone like Rush Limbaugh is president.

I know. Yikes and yuk.

Ordinarily, the integrity of our experience isn’t called into question. But this presumes we made it through childhood and adolescence OK, and/or that we don’t live under conditions of constant criticism or personal attack.

But people who do, or have, know viscerally how easily and powerfully a word, tone, or glance can humiliate or devastate. And of course anyone with feelings knows they can be hurt, more or less severely, more or less suddenly.

This, I think, is what happened to these gentlemen. Imagine growing up with or otherwise developing a skin so thin that everything you see or read itches, irritates, or stings your self-esteem. Not fun.

When their idea was threatened, so were they, in ways I can only imagine they may have known far too well growing up.

So next time you look out at the birthers, town hollers, town maulers, and all those Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck fans who cry over the loss of their beloved country, think pain. Their world was rocked last November in a way it never could be for others.

And ever since then, our political discourse has been, regrettably, one of having to tend to their injuries. Sad to say, but powerfully painful feelings of political, sexual, intellectual, cultural, economic, and even racial inadequacy were opened up not too long ago in millions of Americans. Those of us who lived through the Civil Rights or busing struggles know what I mean.

Yes, it sucks. And no, it’s ultimately not about them. But you won’t change these people – or get the conversation back to what it should be about – unless and until you speak to or otherwise address their pain. Anything else done in the meantime – politically, socially, legally – is just temporary, in the service of containment. Cure and healing are another set of processes entirely.

I’m not saying stop being outraged over what they’re trying to do to our country, no. Or let them put (or keep) their foot on our neck. No, continue to oppose them as I do in the public square. Keep letting them know, in no uncertain terms, that there are more important things in this world other than their own personal pain.

Like health care. The economy. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Equal protection for all Americans. You know, other people’s pain.

All I’m saying is let your awareness of their pain add to your creativity, flexibility – and yes, patience – in dealing with them. They’re selfish because they have to be, and until they’re fed and sheltered, they’re not going to be available for the kind of compassion and generosity we might otherwise expect.

So, oddly, it does end up being about them, even though we wish it didn’t have to be. Well, sometimes fires burn in our city; we put them out first and only then go looking for the arsonist or other cause.

After all, the birthers, town maulers, and other equally obnoxious types are our neighbors too. And someone smart once said that it’s hard to love your country if you can’t find a way to love your fellow countrymen.

How Def Leppard Saved My Life

If you ask most people, “adolescence” marks that time in life between childhood and adulthood. By that definition, I was not yet an adolescent by the time I’d reached my fifteenth year.

This isn’t to say I hadn’t engaged in the kinds of activities associated with adolescence. Like many in my cohort, I’d had my share of cigarettes, dates, the occasional beer (who remembers Lowenbrau?), and several furtive games of truth or dare.

However, I still predominantly (and much to my chagrin) managed to keep the more or less exclusive company of males. For a straight boy, this was beginning to feel like a death sentence.

Of course there were girls in my chemistry class, a couple with whom I played Dungeons and Dragons on a regular basis, and even one who enjoyed Ozzy as much as I did. But to me, they were always just friends.

One of them went on to become a TV news reporter. When I saw her on TV about seven years after graduation, I began imagining she always liked me but never had the courage to say so.

At a reunion the next year, she confirmed the worst of my fears. Yes, she’d always seen me, too, as nothing more than a friend. Rats.

Anyway, desperate measures were needed if I were to have any hope of breaking out of childhood by my sixteenth birthday. I’d begun taking guitar lessons in a desperate attempt to garner some much-needed social skills and the kind of female company everyone else seemed to be enjoying.

Problem was, the girls I liked were listening to people like Depeche Mode and Duran Duran, both of whom I detested.

You see, I liked Ozzy. And Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and a lot of similar heavy metal groups all with one thing in common: hordes of predominantly male fans. And I was absolutely taken with the work of Randy Rhoads, Ozzy’s guitarist, determined to learn everything he’d done note-for-note.

To this day, I insist the most pivotal moment in rock history is when people like Randy, Ritchie Blackmore, Michael Schenker, and Wolf Hoffmann, started using harmonic minor scales in place of the old blues riffs.

The blues gave and continue to give rock its bite and soul. The harmonic and Hungarian gypsy minor scales, however, gave it symphonic majesty, by providing entirely new ways to create and resolve musical tension.

Listen to the solo on “Smoke On The Water.” That’s your first clue that people are starting to add some odd but interesting notes to the five-note blues scale. Now check out Accept’s “Metal Heart” or the orchestration on Metallica’s “Orion” and you’ll really hear what I mean.

Anyway, I was a total guitar nerd and had no time for mushy glam bands like Night Ranger and Loverboy adored by the girls.

Ugh!!! What to do? I couldn’t pretend to like this music! But I didn’t want to be a monk either!

Then, one brisk March day, the answers to my prayers arrived.

I’ll set the scene for you. The year: 1983. The place: a suburban basement, just after school, late on a Friday afternoon. The setting: a dozen or so teenagers gathered to play Intellivision, watch MTV, and be rowdy.

What happened that afternoon and evening will forever go down in history as the Day My Adolescence Officially Began In Earnest.

The girls had commandeered the stereo, and were listening to Duran Duran. While I and the other guys were taking turns containing and displaying our revulsion, someone suggested we head out to his sister’s car, parked in the driveway.

This car, you see, was special. It was a Camaro, it had leather seats, a very loud stereo, and a Def Leppard cassette in the tape player. As soon as it was cranked up, I knew something wonderful was about to happen.

Now I’d heard “Bringing on the Heartbreak” before, but not given it too much thought. This, however, was different. It was the Pyromania album, and by the second song, the basement had emptied and the girls were partying with us.

With us. Yes, that meant me. Shaking heads and hips to music in a way that would have given Darwin religion.

And we didn’t even have beer!

Soon something became quite clear: this music was awesome, eminently worthy of learning to play, and the bridge to the future.

Some years later, in college, I would pick up a book by Rudolf Otto called The Idea of the Holy. When I read the words mysterium tremendum, I smiled knowlingly, happy to have made her acquaintance that day in my neighbor’s driveway.

Anyway, my like-minded pals and I quickly realized that the high school cover band that could play these tunes was sitting on top of riches the likes of which we could only dream, based on years of extensive research from magazines.

I know, it’s awful. Even my nightmares are airbrushed now.

So we set out to learn this stuff at once. The first order of business was untangling Mutt Lange’s “wall of sound” approach so we could replicate it on stage. It turns out there was a fair amount of overdubbing, of vocals as well as guitars (remember “Crazy Train”?), with a clever hitch: some of the overdubs were ever so slightly out of tune with one another.

Listen to the opening of “Too Late For Love.” We played that with an octave pedal and delay set to refresh really, really fast (that’s what you do, apparently, when you don’t have a phase shifter). And when the guitars played together, same thing: harmonies just a quarter of a cent out of tune with one another.

Soon we discovered these weren’t the same alternating major and minor thirds first brought into use by Thin Lizzy (“The Boys Are Back In Town”) and later popularized by bands like Iron Maiden. No, sir. These were thick, heavy, dissonant harmonies we explored, night after night, when we should have been doing our homework.

Oh, but we were. And the rest is history. No, I didn’t come close to realizing my Darwinian dreams. But I did manage to find the lady I’d date throughout most of high school. I also learned how to dress, groom, and talk to the opposite sex, skills that have stood me in good stead ever since.

Some months ago, on the way to preschool, my three-year-old asked me to play her favorite song for her, “Rocket” off of the Hysteria album. This is one of the albums that did for me in college what Pyromania had done for me in high school. (Roxy Music’s Avalon is the other. Shhh. Don’t tell.)

That day, being in an unusually good mood, I decided I would play that song for her. Over and over again, just the way toddlers like.

It was still going by the time we rolled up to the drop-off. When her teacher asked me what that song was, I told her. She’d never heard of it.

Of course she hadn’t. She’s half my age.

I took the CD out, gave it to her, and told her she could give it back to me when she was done. She smiled and thanked me.

Suddenly, there I was again, inside a minivan pretending to be a Camaro. Except this time I turned on NPR and headed home, with a 1-year-old in the back, to make lunch for myself and a wife who, quite possibly, rocks even harder than me.

Of course she does. She’s half my age.

And I haven’t seen the CD since.  That’s all right, I have more at home.