That six-letter word that some people just have to say.
Published in Dec 2019 | Free Standup NYC
Article by: Andrew Bayroff
a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.
Humanity has a ripe history of doing what it's told is so-called taboo. It’s in our nature as human beings to test, poke, and prod how far we can push the boundaries and limitations on what has been labeled “incorrect”. Then again, someone’s taboo is someone else’s everyday life, who’s to say what is right or wrong? Jews don’t eat pork, but bacon-wrapped bacon is a thing. Burning the US flag is looked upon as anti-American and for some, deviant behavior, yet that happens every year. And in some Polynesian communities, it is forbidden to touch the shadow of a chief. For the record, I would so touch that shadow.
There are, however, certain socially agreed-upon subjects that are taboo across races, colors, and religious boundaries—rape, murder, incest—however. One of the most egregious social taboos is a white person saying That Word. The N-word. That’s both flavors mind you: “ga” and hard “er”. Like Icarus daring to fly beyond his boundaries with his waxwings, white people who feel brazen enough to say the word in public, fall to the earth, with much more than their wings melted.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines That Term as strongly racially offensive when used by a white person in reference to a black person. No wiggle room there. A clean-cut definition. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary also contains entries for over 600,000 other words in current use in the English-speaking world. That’s a pretty deep pool of words to choose from to make you sound smart. Words like equanimity, ubiquitous, idiosyncratic, and fastidious. However, even with over 600K words, some feel the need, the yearning, and even the right to say that one six-letter word. Which I won’t say here, cause let’s just say I don’t need to fly quite that high.
Of course, these so-called offensive words are not an American creation. Wikipedia lists over 300 ethic slurs for everyone to freely use in modern conversation. Terms like Cabbage Eater, Ann, and one I find particularly amusing, White Ears. So what is it about That Word that makes some white—not of color—people want to incorporate it into their every-day life, or standup material? Is it the need to break social conventions? Show you can agitate or shake up what is considered “wrong” in our current society to prove a point? Or maybe you simply don’t care and, “I’ll say whatever I want.” Perhaps a mix of all three. I wish I had the answer. As a comic, we try to use the language afforded to us
What I do know is That Word is an open wound to most people who hear it. For the African America population it’s a constant reminder of when this country wasn’t (isn’t) so great for everyone, and oddly enough, a reminder for white people as well. Dare I say it’s a trigger for most people when it hits their ears to the ignorance and racist overtones that are still alive and well in the US today.
When filming 12 Years a Slave, Leonardo Dicaprio had a problem saying the N-Word,” Foxx says. He said, ‘It’s tough for me to say this.’ Samuel L. Jackson told Leo, “Get over it motherfucker. It’s just another Tuesday mothefucker.”
Standup comedy is filled with a litany of comics offering their own take on life, experiences, and no matter how difficult or ugly, constantly trying to find the humor even in the most abhorrent of subjects. Jewish comics joke about the Holocaust, blacks about slavery, and Japanese always being mistaken for Chinese. But can’t a white comic talk about slavery without succumbing to using That Word? Or when discussing race or racial topics? Surely there’s a smarter way to craft a joke without crowbarring that word into the punchline, yet at the same time gaining the same, if not a more potent, result. That said, I have heard white comics deliver smart jokes using, if not inferring, referencing, the N-word. Not many, but they are out there.
The most ridiculous reason I’ve heard a white person use That Word is, “My black friends gave me permission to use it.” I personally have a number of black comedy/friends and have never been given a punch card, a pass, or a notarized document expressing permission to use the word. Like all progressive white people, I say it alone, in the comfort in my own apt.
There have been exceptions, or should I say, acceptions, to white comics saying “the word”, but those are far a few between. George Carlin used the word in conjunction with other racial slurs when talking about “authentic American Language,” as well this bit about why it’s OK to say The Word. Louis CK and Ricky Gervias both used the word on HBO’s “Talking Funny”. And on his politically leaning comedy talk show, Bill Mahr dropped the soft “ga” when talking to Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. I’m not saying there was no backlash for any of these instances, but no one lost their job.
As a white comic, I have never had the need, the want, nor ever written a joke where “that word” would be the perfect fit. I’ve never been on stage and dealing with a heckler and thought, “Man, if I only could use the N-word here that would be the biggest burn.” Never happened. There was, however, one white comic in NYC around 2017 that used That Word at two open mics. The second time he used it a black comic punched him in the face. If that guttural reaction doesn’t quell your interest in using the word, not sure what will.
In the end, it comes down to each individual comic and what they feel they bring to the mic or show. If you’re not a comic of color and you feel you just have to use that word, my advice is don’t say it to just say it. You won’t be edgy, “pushing the envelope”, or thinking outside the box. Be original. Have a unique perspective that forces people to not only look past that word but more so concentrate on the message of the joke, and your point of view. Then again, if you get punched in the face, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Mark Anthony Ramirez
"It’s just another Tuesday ..."