Do as I say, not as I do: On language for SOME of us

From Paula Dean to athletes Riley Cooper and Roy Hibbert, 2013 has been the year of the celebs getting caught using discriminatory language. While all of the aforementioned have received their respective slaps on the wrist by way of fines, firings, and contract cuts, they did not go down without some finger wagging of their own.

Apparently many people still do not seem to understand the importance of context or the significance of self-definition (including the ownership of certain terms). In the case of the Deen and Cooper, who were both exposed for using the N-word, we’ve noticed the dialogue blame shift from the white people using words that are rooted in hatred and/or don’t belong to them, to the black people around them who have used the word freely within earshot. The rhetoric here being that black folks shouldn’t use the term if they don’t want white folks to… You gotta love white entitlement.

It is not the responsibility of people of color to “set an example” of inclusiveness and safe speech for white people. But more importantly, we are allowed to have language and practices that white people do not have rights to. We are a diverse nation of people with rich histories and cultures, most of which are rooted in oppression. It is perfectly fine that some of us “do our own thing.” And no, we do not have to do it behind closed doors so that white people don’t “get the wrong idea”.

Sometimes gay men call each other f**s. The term has been reclaimed and transformed within that community, but I can’t go out into the world saying “let me tell you about the f**s I was with yesterday” or even worse “stop acting like a f**”. Similarly, when I say “I’m with my bitches” referring to my homegirls that doesn’t, give men a pass to say “I’m hanging with a group of bitches right now” whenever they are in the company of women. The same applies when I refer to “my niggas.” I can say those words, with pride. They have cultural capital in my community that I value. They represent a unique way of relating and communicating to people that I love, and even some that don’t. Even if other members of my community disagree and choose not to use them, they still belong within our community. It has to be understood that although the use of certain language by members of a certain community is acceptable and ok, it can still be (and is) a tool of hatred, intolerance, discrimination, and pain outside of that community. Language is fluid like that.

Whenever I wanted to do something my mother did (like get a tongue piercing) and she wouldn’t allow me to, I’d object to her hypocrisy. And she would immediately put me back in my place by quickly saying: do as I say, not as I do. She was an adult who was financially responsible and independent enough to make such choices. She was the dictator of those decisions at that time. That’s why her response was dead on. This is my response to folks like Donald Trump who can’t see their own white privilege from a mile away and questions why “cracker” is acceptable and “the n word” is not.

And if we’re being honest, most of these celebrity scandals are not just misinterpretations of how these words are supposed to be used. Paula Deen had an extremely problematic fascination with the slave era and mistreated her black employees (including “color differentiated” restrooms). Riley Cooper was pissed at some black bouncers and spit racial slurs at them. When a  community tells you that they are offended, do not question their feelings. Check your privilege and move on. It’s called accountability. Have some.


Feministing's resident "sexpert", Sesali is a published writer and professional shit talker. She is a queer Black girl, fat girl, and trainer. She was the former Training Director at the United States Student Association and later a member of the Youth Organizing team at Planned Parenthood Federation of America. She received her bachelors in Women's and Gender Studies from Depaul University in 2012 and is currently pursuing a master's in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A self identified "trap" feminist, and trained with a reproductive justice background, her interests include the intersections of feminism and: pop culture, youth culture, social media, hip hop, girlhood, sexuality, race, gender, and Beyonce. Sesali joined the team in 2010 as one of the winners of our So You Think You Can Blog contest.

is Feministing's resident sexpert and cynic.

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Join the Conversation

  • honeybee

    I don’t think there should be different rules based on what ethnicity, religion, gender, etc. you are. To me that goes against feminism. We should be trying to ERASE these barriers and differences, not enforce them.

    I think if there are words that shouldn’t be used, no one should use them. Once you say the rules are different based on who you are you open up a huge can of worms and a slippery slope. I don’t see how it’s in our best interest to encourage this.

    And of course the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ rhetoric has been firmly destroyed by feministing itself, since it’s a favorite tactic of conservatives and assholes a like.

    I’m Asian so maybe my opinion doesn’t count but this is what I believe and how I act and feel. Interested to see what others think though.

    • Andrew

      I know that I recoiled when John McCain used the term “g*oks” to refer to his captors in Vietnam. His animus towards them was incredibly easy to understand but there was also no way I could believe that it didn’t make Asian-Americans feel alienated.

  • Andrew

    The point is well taken, but I don’t think Charlie Rangel has really been given a “pass” to use the word cracker. There was a predictable reaction from those on the right who saw political fodder in the comment and a cherished opportunity to rail about double standards, but I know many progressive individuals who shudder at the word cracker precisely because it is a racial insult

  • Andrew

    Can I add that I was offended by the speed with which Riley Cooper was rushed through the PR carwash for presentation to the public? It felt to me that the organization put tremendous pressure on their black athletes to assent to his rehabilitation. If forgiveness is the most prudent course (and I don’t know if it is) they should have been given a chance to process what amounted to a very serious betrayal.

  • Melanie

    When a community tells you that they are offended, do not question their feelings. Check your privilege and move on. It’s called accountability. Have some. – Great!

    • honeybee

      So if men tell us they’re offended by fat women or by feminists or women who dress scantily or a host of other things we should just accept it!?!?! What an incredulous thing to say. People don’t get to dictate absolute terms for how others should treat them. How people should be treated is a negotiation and must be so else how do you resolve conflicting views???

      This mantra’s is simply too black and white when the world is grey.