The “N” Word, Blackface: Enough!

A couple of weeks ago, Maryland State Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti admitted to describing Prince George’s County, Maryland as “That ‘N’ district.” After acknowledging she made the statement, she apologized. But when asked by the Washington Post if she had ever used the ‘N’ word, she said, “I’m sure I have… I’m sure everyone has.”

Am I that naïve? Is this a regularly used term by everyone? Surely her ‘everyone’ doesn’t include black people. And do all white people really use this word casually and routinely?

I know it is popular for some young black people. It is used throughout certain music lyrics and is sprinkled, by some, in conversation. Several years ago, there was a notable conversation between Jay Z and Oprah. He said the ‘N’ word was just a word and that its power came from the intention of the user. That is one view. It’s not Oprah’s, and it’s not mine. I have never said it. When I hear it, it has a harshness. For me, that word evokes hatred, degradation, and vileness, but then I am more of Oprah’s generation than Jay Z’s.

When I first heard of Lisanti’s comment, I thought her ‘everyone’ might mean all white people. I hope not and really don’t believe that. What I am inclined to believe is that it is an acceptable term among her friends and family. In her community, I fear, no one would give a second thought to using it, and no one’s head would jerk back to see who said it. ‘Everyone’ is everyone in her world. That’s a problem, a serious one. An elected state official believes that everyone uses the ‘N’ word. She believes that everyone sees black people in such a way that black or African-American isn’t the term of choice. No, it’s ‘N’ and with it comes a fully formed narrative about who that person is along with a recognition that those sentiments reflect what is in her head and in her heart.

Ralph Northam. blackfaceAs we have recently learned from Virginia officials, racial insensitivity and ignorance are far more rampant than most would like to think. The Virginia Governor and Attorney General both admitted to having been in blackface. The First Lady of Virginia recently offered raw cotton to 13- and 14-year-olds touring the Governor’s Mansion so they might think what it would have been like to be a slave (Note: Tobacco was the cash crop for Virginia. Why did she choose to use cotton?) This is not only happening in Virginia, my home state. Before a recent election in Florida, one candidate urged voters “Not to monkey it up.”

Just as Ron DeSantis was using this negative, animalistic trope to refer to his black opponent, Lisanti was directly referring to the mostly black population of Prince George’s County. She was not using the ‘N’ word as a term of endearment or brotherhood as Jay Z suggested. She was using it as a derogatory reference to the fact that 65% of the residents of the county, according to the last census, are African-American. And just as a boutique in Paris didn’t care or didn’t know how much money Oprah Winfrey had when the salesperson refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, I suspect that Lisanti either didn’t know or didn’t care that 5 of the 10 wealthiest black communities in America are in Prince George’s County. And at one time, this county was touted as having the largest number of black millionaires. The color of their skin and what that means, or suggests within her value system, was the issue, not their economic status.

Lisanti has been censured by the Maryland House of Delegates. They have taken away her subcommittee leadership position, but as of this writing, she still sits as an elected leader in the state of Maryland, Governor and Mrs. Northam still occupy the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. Mark Herring is still the Attorney General of Virginia and, even with his coarse comment, last November, Ron DeSantis was elected Governor of Florida. And these aren’t just the recent ones, they’re just the ones we know about.

What does having these leaders in Virginia, or Maryland or Florida mean for the people of their states? Whose needs do they understand? Which citizens do they fight for? Who do they see as the contributors to the success and promise of their states? Who do they believe are the dregs that detract from their states? Your word choices and actions reflect what is in your head and your heart and they have significant ramifications, consciously and unconsciously.

I do not believe you can fully represent the needs of people you denigrate, people who you do not value.

Elected officials who belittle and demean cannot be removed from office for callousness or ignorance. They have done nothing against the law. They have, however, revealed their inability to represent the needs of their entire constituency. When that has been shown by the words they say and the actions they take, they should apologize, and they should resign. That—perhaps—might help them regain, at a minimum, some integrity.