Our Dishonest Discourse About “The Hard R”

A controversy that began with this open letter asking Spotify to “take action against the mass-misinformation events which continue to occur on its platform” (with regards to COVID-19 and vaccines) and musicians including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell pulling their music from the platform took an interesting turn when India.Arie shared a supercut of Rogan not just using “the hard r”, but calling black people apes in talking about why she was pulling her music from Spotify. Joe Rogan has since apologized, and Spotify removed 70 podcast episodes where he used the slur.

It is possible, if not highly likely that I am being overly cynical regarding the sincerity of Rogan’s apology. My cynicism is animated at least in part by how often mea culpas for this sort of thing include phrases similar to this:
“It’s a video that’s made of clips taken out of context of me of 12 years of conversations on my podcast. It’s all smushed together and it looks f—— horrible, even to me”

and this:
“I never used it to be racist.”

and especially this:
“I do hope that this can be a teachable moment.”

This last quote in particular is one that provides an opportunity to pivot to academic usage of “the hard r”. Randall Kennedy argued last year in favor of what might be called a pedagogical exception for the word to be used in full for teaching purposes. Included in his argument however, are skepticism of some of the claims of hurt by students hearing the word used. Further, he argues that his race should not give him more leeway to use the n-word than his white colleagues. Dr. John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics, has written about the n-word on multiple occasions prior to the controversy over Rogan’s usage of it. Beyond pedagogy (in use) or virtue-signaling (in non-use), the question not being asked or adequately answered is why this debate only seems to persist around the use of a slur that only applies to black people (though there is a modifier for it that applies to Middle Eastern people that I first heard in the movie The Siege)?

This quote by James Baldwin poses and answers that question more eloquently and bluntly:
“What white people have to do is try and find out in their own hearts why it is necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place, because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man. But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

A poem written in 1912 and attributed to H.P. Lovecraft, provides another answer to where the necessity for the word (and the idea) comes from:
“When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shap’d at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next design’d;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Fill’d it with vice, and call’d the thing a NIGGER.”

In Lovecraft’s conception (and almost certainly in the conception of others who subscribed to the eugenics movement as he did), black people were not fully human. We were beasts to be feared, objects of and/or causes of lust, purveyors of vices, corrupters of innocence–but not human beings like everyone else. While Lovecraft is long since dead, the sentiments behind his poetically-expressed contempt for black folks live on in others–not just in the body politic, but in some of its leaders as well. This is why the governor of an entire state can say publicly that Joe Rogan should not have apologized (for using the n-word). I believe this to be at the heart of why the debate over the word continues.

To borrow from James Baldwin again, he expresses the sentiment well regarding how American society in his time used and viewed black people:
“That in a way black men were very useful for the American. Because, in a country so absolutely undefined – so amorphous – where there were no limits – no height really and no depth – there was one thing of which one could be certain. One knew where one was, by knowing where the Negro was. You knew that you were not on the bottom because the Negro was there.”
Though decades have passed since Baldwin spoke these words, it seems that America has yet to outgrow its need for black people to define where the bottom of society is, and the casual (if not unapologetic) usage of the n-word is just one manifestation of that broader sentiment. I maintain no illusions that this affliction is unique to the political right, or to libertarian ideology. Those on the political left are no shrinking violets when it comes to using “the hard r”.

It is very telling that many of the same people who rush to defend voices of dissent in other contexts lack the same concern when it comes to black people objecting to the use of a slur targeting them. The social norms against using slurs and stereotypes which attack Jews, or Italians, or the Irish, or Hispanics, or Asian people remain intact. You rarely (if ever) see people from those communities presuming to give out metaphorical hall passes for others to use slurs against them without consequences. Because black people are still not seen or treated as full citizens of this country, our opinions on “the contours of acceptable speech” lack the same weight as those of others. Too many people in this country apparently still prefer an older version of it where slurs against black people could be said without consequence. But that isn’t a version of America we’re returning to.