Marjorie Taylor Greene has power.
As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, she’s elected, has willing reporters documenting her every unhinged utterance, has columnists (like me) giving her added oxygen, and can use her vote to move public policy and tax dollars.
Also, she’s white.
Each of these things gives her power.
But when she equates the term white supremacist to the N-word — as she did recently — she exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of that power … and just how dangerous that misunderstanding can be.
“I will tell you what’s on video is Jamaal Bowman shouting at the top of his lungs, cursing, calling me a horrible — calling me a white supremacist, which I take great offense to,” she said during a May 18 press conference as she recounted an argument with the New York congressman. “That’s like calling a person of color the N-word, which should never happen. Calling me a white supremacist is equal to that. That is wrong.”
As ignorant as Greene is, her accusation raises important questions: What makes a word offensive? What makes a word a slur? What makes a word unsayable, such that a publication will print only “the N-word” (but doesn’t feel a need to mask white supremacist as “the W-S-word”)?
On the one hand, I subscribe to the George Carlin school of language, which says there’s no such thing as “bad” words — just a handful of utterances (by his count, seven) that some pearl-clutching ninnies once decided were so outrageous that you couldn’t say them on television. As a devoted Carlinite, I gleefully swear around small children.
On the other hand, I’m a hypocrite. Because the N-word is a legitimately bad word — when used in a certain way, at least.
The N-word isn’t just a slur or a label; it’s an expression of power.
For 200 years, starting in the late 16th century, the N-word was, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “a relatively neutral (or occasionally positive) term, with no specifically hostile intent.” Then right around the American Revolution, America — as it was being built on the backs of slave labor — changed the word’s meaning.
Circa 1775 was the first documented use of the N-word “as a hostile term of abuse or contempt,” the OED says. It’s a term that both accompanies and enables discrimination and has done so for 250 years. And the rest is history… except, of course, for the parts that are very much the present.
From its first breath, the United States had an ingrained power imbalance that changed the meaning and effect of the N-word. It was used — and is still used today — as a way for white people to exert power over Black people.
That’s also why the N-word has a different meaning when used by Black people than by White people, and why white people need to stop sending me emails asking, “But then why are they allowed to say it?!” The changed power dynamic changes the word’s meaning.
An insult without the power to discriminate is just an insult, not a slur. Anyone can find anything offensive, but as long as power dynamics aren’t at play, offensiveness is just feelings. Calling Marjorie Taylor Greene a white supremacist might hurt her snowflake feelings, but it doesn’t discriminate against her or diminish her power in any way. That’s why white supremacist is nothing like the N-word.
But as I’ve noted, words’ definitions change. So could we get to a point where calling someone a white supremacist actually did diminish their power?
That would be a definition worth fighting for.