Not that Walter Mosley needs anyone’s help to tell a story, but a commenter, Patti Jacobs from San Diego, was too perfect to pass up. Let’s assume she’s female, because in a sane world her name would be a giveaway, and she’s likely white because I assume she would have said she wasn’t if she wasn’t. Regardless, Patti Jacobs put the cherry on top:
The dialogue has already been opened, and the change has already taken place. The n-word is offensive at all times, by all speakers.
Says who? Says Patti Jacobs, the person who gets to tell you, and Walter Mosley, what can and cannot be said. All words. All speakers. It’s unclear what Patti Jacobs’ day job is, but it wouldn’t be surprising to learn she works in HR, keeping the work world safe from discomfort.
I’d been in the new room for a few weeks when I got the call from Human Resources. A pleasant-sounding young man said, “Mr. Mosley, it has been reported that you used the N-word in the writers’ room.”
I replied, “I am the N-word in the writers’ room.”
He said, very nicely, that I could not use that word except in a script. I could write it but I could not say it. Me. A man whose people in America have been, among other things, slandered by many words. But I could no longer use that particular word to describe the environs of my experience.
There used to be a “rule” that while a white person couldn’t say the n-word, a black person could because, well, he was black and it’s, well, obvious. So what if it’s commonly used in rap music, or uttered with reckless abandon on certain streets in certain neighborhoods by people who use it as a signal of brotherhood rather than a racist slur? Patti says it’s been decided.
Whether she plans to “cancel” radio stations playing unacceptable music or grab her pitchfork and march down streets in neighborhoods where she seems out of place to inform its residents that they’re violating the rules remains unknown. Surely, she should if she’s a true ally to the cause, but then there are so many other important things to do, like post cute kitten pics on instagram and let people know the president must be impeached, or else!
The story Mosley told in the writers’ room was fairly banal to those of us in criminal law. It’s a story most cops would tell in the right crowd or while sipping a boilermaker.
I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all niggers in paddy neighborhoods and all paddies in nigger neighborhoods, because they were usually up to no good. I was telling a true story as I remembered it.
Notably, the slurs go two ways, although there was no complaint to HR about the hate speech toward Irish. And to most of us, the short story is, well, not entirely inaccurate. We may not like that it’s pretty much true, and it shouldn’t be pretty much true, but we know it is. We don’t have the luxury of living in a fantasy since it’s our job to clean up the mess.
But what happened next to Mosley, that someone in that writers’ room ratted him out to HR, reflects a next-level disconnect between the word he used and a new, somewhat different, evil to be eradicated. It’s close, but not quite the same. It’s not just that Mosley used the n-word, but that he made someone, a white person because Mosley was the “N-word in the writers room,” feel uncomfortable.
There I was being chastised for criticizing the word that oppressed me and mine for centuries. As far as I know, the word is in the dictionary. As far as I know, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence assure me of both the freedom of speech and the pursuit of happiness.
How can I exercise these freedoms when my place of employment tells me that my job is on the line if I say a word that makes somebody, an unknown person, uncomfortable?
Well, of course the Declaration of Independence doesn’t assure anyone of anything, but he’s not a lawyer and the New York Times editors don’t have much of a grasp on how law works, so it can be forgiven. But the First Amendment to the Constitution does, even if it doesn’t apply in the writers’ room or to HR. His point, even if what he’s really talking about is societal norms that support free speech over the discomfort of some unknown person, is clear. He’s the oppressed guy, and his right to speak freely was just beaten to death by some unknown but extremely sensitive person who felt discomfort at the sound of a black man using the n-word.
And the HR person, for whom no racial description is given, did what HR people are inclined to do these days.
There I was, a black man in America who shares with millions of others the history of racism. And more often than not, treated as subhuman. If addressed at all that history had to be rendered in words my employers regarded as acceptable.
Was Mosley being disingenuous? Had some white dude in the writers’ room told the same story, would he not have felt discomfort, at minimum, if not outrage?
There’s all kinds of language that makes me uncomfortable. Half the utterances of my president, for instance. Some people’s sexual habits and desires. But I have no right whatsoever to tell anyone what they should and should not cherish or express.
Nobody has to like what anyone else says. If someone uses a word that makes you feel “uncomfortable,” or more likely you know is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable and compels any good ally to report it to Ms. Torquemada in HR, you have choices. You can get up and leave. You can go old school and say something to the person as if you’re both human beings. You don’t have to be a secret snitch. But it’s just so much easier and less traumatic that way, and after all, if you’re uncomfortable to begin with, to expect a person to deal with it like a mature adult is tantamount to victim blaming and re-traumatizing the white person.
Not to mention, the black guy, Mosley, might have beat them up. You know how violent and criminalish those black guys can be, and it would be outrageous to expect the uncomfortable white person in the writers’ room to risk their life by talking to the black guy as a human being. It would be just as outrageous as expecting the very righteous Patti to march down 125th Street and order the black guys to repent for using a word she’s decided can’t be uttered by anyone. Or else.