The N-word Apologia

Lena Dunham's racial backpedaling proves you can never be famous enough.

The Daily Mail this week takes a stab at making sense of the whole Lisa Lampanelli/Lena Dunham n-word scandal by reprinting a Twitter exchange between Dunham and XOJane blogger Shayla Pierce, who wrote an article about why white people should never, ever use the n-word, even for comic relief. In the fashion of someone of our generation, Pierce doesn’t hesitate to make the controversy about herself, once a kid coming face to face with racism for the first time. I agree with Pierce, it’s beyond horrifying to know that someone somewhere has it out for you because of your skin color. But that doesn’t mean I’ll ever buy into these woe-is-me tales of mild-to-moderate childhood bullying, and not because I don’t sympathize, but because putting them out there in that glib, confessional tone really tests my sympathy. To internalize something as arbitrary and irrational as hate is to miss the point that the people dishing it are pathetic, impotent losers who lash out at the rest of the world to cover for their own lack of agency. They problem is them, not you, which is admittedly hard to explain to a nine-year-old, but isn’t the whole process of growing up one long acclimation to the fact that the world doesn’t begin and end with yourself? Pierce, I would wager, has done more with life than her attacker ever did, and yet she persists with this insincere and disingenuous critique. So I would ask her this: what in the hell does any of this have to do with Lampanelli?

Incidentally, the most admirable thing about the fallout is how Lampanelli handled it—by not backing down and issuing some potboiler apology, as 99.9% of celebrities, with the exception of maybe Christopher Hitchens (PBUH) or Charlie Sheen, would have done. In case you’re not familiar, Lampanelli has made an entire career out of making fun of herself and the black men who love her. Where was everyone then? Laughing their asses off until the ceremonial cue to tear her down presented itself? Dunham, meanwhile, did categorically the worst thing possible by caving to the pressure and engaging her Twitter heckler. In case you forgot, she’s done this before, in season three of Girls, where she not only wrote a black guy into the show but made him her love interest and a Republican. Curiously enough, he also happens to be the most well-adjusted, even-keeled and respectable character to date. Wouldn’t it have been enough to leave it at a black colleague or acquaintance? I’m not sure if that counts as revenge, but it is passive aggressive.

Anyway, there’s no point rehashing all the problems with the show because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar already did it way better than I could over at the Huffington Post:

Last season the show was criticized for being too white. Watching a full season could leave a viewer snow blind. This season that white ghetto was breached by a black character who is introduced as some jungle fever lover, with just enough screen time to have sex and mutter a couple of lines about wanting more of a relationship. A black dildo would have sufficed and cost less. I don’t believe that people of color, sexual preference, or gender need to be shaken indiscriminately into every series like some sort of exotic seasoning. If the story calls for a black character, great. A story about a black neighborhood doesn’t necessarily need white characters just to balance the racial profile. But this really seemed like an effort was made to add some color—and it came across as forced.

Pop quiz: were you more shocked to learn that there were no black people on Girls or that a black guy wrote this paragraph? Relax, you don’t have to answer that.

Dunham’s equivocation on the question of race has partly to do with the inexperience of age, which is forgivable and maybe even endearing. But you tell me what’s worse: her going with her gut and an all-white cast to the outrage of those who think the show isn’t multicultural enough or her continuing to showcase misappropriated minorities as proof of her commitment to the cause of multiculturalism? As far as I see it, one makes her honest and the other, a hack. It’s sad to watch a talented and well-intentioned person like Dunham gradually shed principles she didn’t even know she had to appease an arbitrary and self-appointed body of critics at the expense artistic integrity, but one gets the sense that’s precisely the point. By this logic, it’s less important for Dunham to be accountable about sensitive topics than for her to be exposed as insensitive and degraded to the level of everyone else. Here it’s worthwhile to remember the lesson of Steve Jobs and Apple, which tells us that, usually, the creator knows best. The question of race and Girls is not really a question at all but a way for those jealous of the show and its precocious lead to rationalize a basis on which they can reject her/it. Why must everything in America be design by committee? Because who cares about democracy when you can have debasement!

The question of jealousy, meanwhile, is a salient one because in a culture where the fame cycle has become so compressed and accessible that you can spat with your favorite celebrity on Twitter or see their pussy on Instagram, everyone and their mother suddenly feels entitled to their fifteen minutes. Plus, as all good indie bands and downtown art stars know, the nature of fame is to make it look as deceptively effortless as possible, which Dunham has done expertly since the days of Tiny Furniture. Add that this is New York, where every other creative type you meet is a friend of a friend of Dunham or Alexa Chung or that tall guy from Chromeo, and you have a snake pit. As Alain de Botton put it, on Twitter no less, “The more dignity is widely and freely available in a society, the less people want to be famous.” I think he’s talking about Scandinavia because if America was the Oregon Trail and points were awarded in dignity, we’d have died of dysentery a long time ago.

By the way, note to Pierce, actually, you did go after her. If two sightings make a trend then four tweets surely constitute provocation. But what was Pierce really angling for—a meaningful response or a response from Lena Dunham?…Because only one of those is possible on Twitter. Of course, if Pierce was really concerned with getting some justice, she would have gone straight to the source, Lampanelli herself; instead, she settled for the symbolic victory of baiting a famous person who also happens to be a nice person out of her comfort zone. Oddly enough, Dunham felt compelled to respond to amateur journalist Pierce but not to national treasure Jabbar, even issuing a thunderingly milquetoast excuse justifying her decision: ”I have to admit, I only skimmed it. It seemed like a mixed review and I have a policy about not reading those.” It’s healthy and sane to ignore malicious gossip published about yourself on the Daily Mail but entirely avoidant, even cynical to discount constructive criticism that can actually make your work better. Or to reframe it, when constructive criticism is so hard to come by, why on earth would you ignore it? Ironically, of all the black people Dunham chose not to entertain, it was the one with the most to say.

Dunham’s first instinct to keep quiet was the correct one seeing as she didn’t owe anyone, let alone anyone on Twitter, an explanation, but the disease to please forces us to make the wildest concessions. Which explains why the most important issue of the American century quickly devolves into a slumber party, with Pierce signing off “hugsies.” Funny how the minute she got what she wanted, Shayla did a complete 180, going from DEFCON 4 to BFFS in little over a half an hour. Because that’s just what I'd expect from a person with a vested interest in a national discourse of this magnitude.

Of course, this latest n-word scandal is not entirely without precedent. In 2007, Nas wanted to make an album called Nigger but was strong-armed into calling it Untitled. Nas’s instinct was that bringing the word into circulation would demystify and disempower its unsavory meaning. Eminem, for his part, has been smart about rhyming around the word in his music, making it stronger in my opinion, partly because of the additional ingenuity it requires. In 2011, Kreayshawn affiliate V-Nasty was criticized for her liberal use of the word “nigga,” a controversy so inconsequential it’s probably not worth mentioning if not for the record. And in 2012, Azealia Banks was singled out for a similar offense, using the word “faggot,” which as every ten-year-old knows, when invoked in that way, means "pussy" or "wimp" but certainly not “gay.” Banks, who is black and bisexual, was right to stand up for herself and dismiss the uproar as “stupid media shit.” At the core of such seemingly benevolent interventions there is always the sinister hand of the advertising-legistlative complex whose basic imperative it is to disenfranchise people by encouraging them to engage in competitive consumerism and pitting them against each other on the basis of artificial differences. Speaking to Angie Martinez of Hot 97 before the release of his album, Nas admitted that while Def Jam backed him fully on the choice of title it was Congress that eventually pulled the plug. As a means of maintaining the status quo, the n-word functions a bit like a tectonic fissure that neither camp can cross.

So far, my examples have been limited to hip hop, which is mainly where they occur, since unlike jazz, that genre was both invented by black people and steeped in pop culture. Before we move on, let’s make the distinction between “nigger,” a racial slur that nobody uses unless they’re Aryan Nation and “nigga,” a term of endearment that everyone uses, black kids in public and white kids in the dank secrecy of of their parents’ basements. That may be misbegotten but it's hardly nefarious. Anyway, it’s clear that Lampanelli’s comment was meant in good humor and common sense. “Ask any person who knows the urban dictionary," said the offender, "it means ‘friend.’" To willfully disregard this point is to distort the truth to suit an ideological agenda, which as it happens, is as bad for race relations as it gets. Lampanelli’s whole act, and you could say comedy in general, is essentially about celebrating humanity by laughing at its folly.

The thing about getting outraged over the use of the word “nigga” is that it says more about you than the person who dealt it. If you’re white, the impulse to censor others reveals your own feelings of guilt and impotence over the historic treatment of blacks. More importantly, it suggests a deep-seated and dangerous moral superiority. And if you’re black, it exposes your insecurity and lack of faith in being regarded as an equal by whites today. In both cases, it's an intellectual indulgence. Writes Pierce, “White people who use it are provoking because by refusing Black people the exclusive rights to that word, they’re denying us what little privilege we have. And that’s just insulting.” If the idea that black privilege is limited to ownership of a single word is depressing enough as is, consider the logic behind it. In essence, what Pierce is telling us is that black people are so powerless that the only power they can exercise over white people is emotional blackmail. It’s a strangely clever tactic since the one thing young white liberals will avoid more than the pain of death is a confrontation with feelings that are unpleasant and socially inappropriate. What Pierce doesn’t want to admit is that it’s no longer up to an arbitrary external authority to decide her level of privilege, leaving her with the simple binary: conform or rebel. You're on your own, sister. It's not the fear of oppression but the terror of freedom that makes all you young ones burst at the seams. 

Gawker is even more, shall we say, judicious, on the matter. They sum it up thusly: “To use them, often, is to speak to be unheard, to get in the way of your own ideas, if you have any ideas in the first place. So just don’t. Unless you are a troll. In which case, congratulations: you’re a troll.” If anyone missed the irony of combatting name-calling with more name-calling, I’ll be happy to explain. But what’s this about “ideas” coming from an outlet that's made a mockery of critical thinking? And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the essence of the dysfunctional dynamic we have in this country, where both sides agree to being demeaned and infantilized just as long as they can reserve the right to begrudgingly appeal to one another’s authority when it suits them. It’s what Bill Cosby meant by the “subtle racism of lowered expectations,” not that anybody was listening. In her quest for fairness, Pierce is simultaneously selling black people short and holding white people hostage. And, whether she knows it or not, what she's banking on is that no one would feel comfortable calling her out on this hypocrisy because we've all been trained to submit to stereotype. This isn’t progress, it’s madness, and as long as smart young people like she and Dunham keep playing into the hands of bad liberalism, this is exactly where we’ll stay—in an impasse of latent resentment.

This essay was originally published on Disorientalism.