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Kanye, Seth, and the “n-word”…

Welcome to 2012 where publications still fire writers for using the word “nigger” (and in this case, its variant “nigga”).

Gawker released (a middle-class term for “fired”) writer Seth Abramovitch because of the following post regarding Kanye West, the rapper who has never used the “n-word” professionally unless you include his music.

(Yes, there’s a song called “Niggas in Paris.” I reviewed the lyrics online and curiously, there are no references to Josephine Baker or James Baldwin.)

In the space of two hours, Kanye West has tweeted 60 times and counting on, uh, his earnest pursuits in the realm of fashion and graphic design and nutrition and architecture and video games and publicity and medicine and law and science and app guys. You think Tom Ford is full of himself? Kanye West shits Tom Fords for breakfast. Then he irons out the shits into cutting-edge fabrics, and frantically cuts, sews, and laces that fabric through the night and into the morning, until he has produced the most unbelievable clothes — nay, FASHION + ART = FARTSHION! — in the universe. And he calls these clothes DONDA. But he calls all that other stuff DONDA, too! DONDA will be your everything. Just you wait and see. And what is DONDA? It’s an acronym for Dis Original N***a Dresses Aight.*

This resulted in an immediate uproar online. Abramovitch apologized, which was apparently deemed “half-assed,” so he was fired.

“Donda” is the name of West’s deceased mother, so the post was certainly in poor taste. Gawker is within its rights to fire writers who post things in poor taste, but Gawker’s also a gossip site, which is the definition of poor taste.

Clearly, Abramovitch was fired for using the word “nigga” in the same post in which he used the word “shit.” The post was meant to be humorous — we should consider the intent even if the execution was unsuccessful — but it still cost him his job in a lousy economy.

He was also arguably fired because he was white. It’s hard to imagine a similar outrage if the author had been black. And it’s not like a black person would have never considered saying the word “nigga.” Chris Rock uses the word all the time in his acts. He’s also used the word “faggot” and he’s not gay. He’s also used the word “bitch,” and he’s not female. So, perhaps there’s a double standard at work.

Reuters referred to the word as “an unpalatable racial slur,” but it’s a constant presence in rap music. A society in which the word is referred to euphemistically and in hushed tones in some quarters but is blast loudly from a stereo at a party in other quarters is an extremely divided society.

I don’t endorse running around calling black people “niggers.” This isn’t my childhood in the South. But the word should be considered within its context, just like any other word. A post mocking Kanye West, a rapper who uses the word frequently himself, is different from a National Review article about Barack Obama. “Nigga” in the latter case would be inappropriate. As far as context goes, I thought the “If I Were a Poor Black Kid” article in Forbes was far more racially insulting than the Gawker post. Abramovitch only used “nigga” once, while the Forbes piece used it metaphorically at least about three dozen times.

Almost 40 years after Richard Pryor released “That Nigger’s Crazy,” I don’t know why people still fear the word “nigger.” Marcia Clark couldn’t even say it in open court during the O.J. Simpson murder trial when confronting a racist witness. The word lost its power to wound when blacks gained the power to respond. They didn’t have to just grin, tap dance, and bear it. As the “Saturday Night Live” sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor demonstrated, calling a black man “nigger” is a good way to end up with a “dead honkey.”

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2012 in Pop Life, Social Commentary

 

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Not the Best Buy…

By way of Mark Evanier’s site, I came upon this Forbes piece regarding the eventual collapse of retailer Best Buy. The story is not news to anyone — brick and mortar stores can’t compete with online when they long ago eliminated any value they had to offer from reasonably paid mammals who knew something about electronics. Corporations chose to downsize the geese that sell the golden eggs.

However, I shall tell a positive story if not about Best Buy but one of its employees. I recently purchased a new laptop, which involved my venturing to the Best Buy closest to me. I settled on a model that was not in stock. I was then told that a Best Buy further away from me might have it. I’m never a fan of “might” but I’m an unemployed writer, so what else do I have to do with my time? I arrive at the other Best Buy, where I learn from a salesman who is intent on informing me that he’s somehow affiliated with Microsoft that someone just purchased the last model that was in stock. He continued to go on about the odds of the store selling out of the laptop I wanted while I was on my way to the store. It mattered very little to me if the odds were a million to one or one to one, I still did not have the laptop.

Another clerk called a Best Buy even further from me. They had plenty of the laptops I wanted in stock. They would not ship it to a store close to me, though, for reasons that were unclear. This is when I asked a critical question. Best Buy’s Geek Squad offers a service where it removes a lot of the garbage that comes pre-installed on your computer. The process takes about three hours, I was told. However, some of the computers already have this done so you can avoid the wait.

“Can you please confirm that this Best Buy location has a laptop with the Geek Squad service already performed? If so, I’ll pick it up today. If not, I’ll go by tomorrow.”

“Oh, 40% of the stock usually has it done and since it costs more, it’s likely they’ll have one ready.”

There are certain things in life you can’t confirm: The existence of extraterrestrial life, what happens after death or when you move to the suburbs, but whether a specific laptop is in stock is something you can confirm with a phone call.

“Before I purchase the laptop here, can you please confirm that one is in stock with the Geek Squad service already done? Thank you.”

The clerk goes away and returns shortly to tell me that the item I want is at the other Best Buy and ready for pick-up. I purchase the laptop, declining the extended warranty, family plan, commemorative Civil War plates and whatever other crap they try to sell you. I then go to the other Best Buy. The young woman who greets me at the store pick-up desk acts as if it’s her first day — not at Best Buy but on Earth. Imagine a mad scientist creating her in a lab, rejecting her because his assistant goofed and provided an abnormal brain, and dropping her off at the nearest Best Buy to begin a career in retail.

She examines my store receipt, asks multiple questions that only serve to confuse her more, and then finally retrieves my laptop, which she places in front of me.

One of many things I learned from my mother is to double check every aspect of my order before leaving the store. When we’d go to Kentucky Fried Chicken (it was still Kentucky Fried Chicken back then), my mother would stoically open every box and examine the contents to ensure she wasn’t stuck with extra crispy or dark meat. She was an original recipe, white meat lady. I would think, “See, this is what she thinks of you. She had you repeat the order to her when she placed it. You even confirmed it with her when you handed over the boxes, but she’s going through it again right in front of you because she knows you’re a fool. Oh, and she’s right. That’s an extra crispy drumstick next to the mashed potatoes.”

I asked the young woman if the Geek Squad had already wiped the computer of the offending software, as I’d requested and paid for.

“No, this computer doesn’t have that, but if one of our guys is free, he can have it done in about two to three hours.”

It makes no sense to me that Best Buy bothers telling people that the Geek Squad service takes four hours (if they say two to three, it’s really four) to complete. What am I supposed to do at Best Buy for that long? It’s not like they have one of Quark’s holosuites in the back.

“That’s unacceptable,” I said. “Your colleague at the other Best Buy claimed that he’d confirmed that the there was a laptop waiting here that already had the Geek Squad service performed on it. That’s the whole reason I came here this afternoon.”

“Yeah,” she replied, offering no explanation. “It’s the only one we have.”

“I’m not staying here for three hours nor I am making a return trip cross town. Could someone bring the computer, once it’s ready, to the Best Buy where I paid for it?”

“Yeah, we don’t do that.”

“I realize you don’t normally but this was your error.”

“You can come back for it tomorrow if you’d like.”

I chose not to thank her for allowing me to pick up something I’d already purchased at a later date.

“I’m not going to do that. I’d like the laptop sent to the more convenient location or I’d like a refund.”

“I can give you a refund.”

At this point, I asked to speak to a manager, so it could be explained to me why they would prefer to lose money instead of simply rectifying their mistake.

When the young woman went for the manager, I expected very little. Why would they care? They had no stake in the sale. The manager would most likely offer some more shuck and jive before giving me a refund.

Instead the manager, also a young woman, politely introduced herself to me, apologized for the confusion, and said she’d personally deliver the laptop the the Best Buy that was actually in my zip code.

This was professionally handled but definitely not the norm. The manager was courteous and made no attempt to blame me or her colleagues at the other stores for the problem. She just focused on making it right.

The next day, as promised, my laptop was at the Best Buy location where I paid for it. I thanked the manager, who was still at the store, on my way out. She deserves better than Best Buy, and I hope she finds it when Best Buy stores start to close. Having worked in corporate America for a while, it would not surprise me if she were among the first fired and the clueless salesclerk temporarily promoted into her position simply because she’d be cheaper. Cheaper keeps the costs down, but it eventually closes the stores.

 
 

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If I Were a Middle-Class Douchebag…

Middle-aged accountant and, based on his Forbes column photo, winner of the annual “Whitest Guy in America Competition” for the 40th consecutive year Gene Marks chose to share his wisdom in a manner similar to someone dropping a flaming brown paper bag outside your front door:

I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia.

Marks believes that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. And so it is. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia… wait a minute, why does that sound familiar?

Oh yeah, Marks probably caught “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” documentary from the 1990s. That was probably the breadth of his research on the subject. Of course, Will Smith (the TV character) did not succeed in West Philadelphia. If you listen to the theme song lyrics, Will’s mother realizes that he’ll either wind up dead or in jail if he stays in the neighborhood, so she takes the option available to all inner-city mothers: She ships him off to live with her sister, who is married to a successful lawyer and resides in Bel-Air, California. There, Will will have access to a stable home environment, the best quality education at an expensive and exclusive prep school, and most importantly no potentially lethal distractions from his homework, such as gangs or the police. Problem solved.

Marks is smart enough to realize it’s not as simple as a rich relative. He recommends that poor black kids can escape their underperforming schools by studying real hard and getting a scholarship to one of those magnent schools that their wealthy but average counterparts attend through no real effort other than choosing to have rich parents.

As Gene Demby at The Huffington Post points out by using research rather than falling asleep during a cable airing of “The Blind Side,” this is nonsense.

…Marks’ mentions Philadelphia’s magnet schools, highlighting Masterman, Central and Girls High as possibilities for the “poor black kid.” Focusing on these three schools, they are very difficult to get into and their demographics are markedly different from the larger School District of Philadelphia. Out of the 11,438 9th graders in Philadelphia, 990 or 8.7% attend those three schools. Admission to those schools is fierce. J. R. Masterman School accepts fewer than 1%  of the students that apply from outside of its middle school. Due to its larger size, Central High School is easier to get into, accepting 24% of its applicants.  Admission to the Philadelphia High School for Girls is of course limited to girls.

To be a “poor black kid” in West Philly and receive admission to one of these magnet schools, you can’t just show up on the first day of ninth grade. All of these magnet school have admissions requirements that must be met for consideration, including excellent grades, excellent standardized test scores, and excellent attendance not just in 8th grade, but in all middle school grades. You need to know the application process, and have a parent, teacher, or guidance counselor that can help you navigate this process. None of which was addressed in Marks’ privileged article.

Denby touches on the largest omission in Marks’s article: Parents. No child succeeds without their involvement. Marks seemed to believe that a child would have the “will the power” to “make sure (he) got the best grades possible (and) make it (his) #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently” without active parental support.

Parents are the ones who instill these values in their children. They set up expectations and standards. Even your Lisa Simpson prodigies have stability at home — it’s difficult to concentrate on your homework if your parents are re-enacting the climax of an Italian opera in the other room — and positive reinforcement from their families. OK, let’s say a child is able to ignore all of that. Who’s going to take the child to the library? Who’s going to help the child with her homework? I am nothing without my parents, who sacrificed, who put me first, who believed that I could do things that they had not. Did my mother really want to drive me half an hour to the city’s library because it had a larger selection than the local branch? Actually, she probably did because she placed a high value on my education. But I didn’t choose that. I did not will my parents to care.

I imagine that Marks’s article and its absurd Marks-ist philosophy will be the subject of online ridicule for a long time (frankly, I couldn’t sleep at night if this wasn’t the case). However, as we all laugh at his unholy union of arrogance and ignorance, we shouldn’t ignore the looming question of what compelled him to write such a racist article in the first place. And it is racist. He claims President Obama’s recent speech inspired it, but Obama said nothing about race (he gave the speech in Kansas; there’s one black person there and his car broke down). It’s telling that Marks views poverty as a black thing… like sickle-cell anemia and hair weaves. Don’t let those mindless paens to consumerism on the CW and FOX fool you, there are a lot of poor white kids. The Clampetts didn’t even have wealthy relatives. They had to do it the old-fashioned way — exploitation of fossil fuels underneath their home.

However, The Daily Kos’s response to Marks’s column mentioned something that answered my question.

Forbes magazine has posted a column by Gene Marks, a middle aged white guy, who wants to give advice to poor black kids about how to be successful in America. Of course, these young black kids read Forbes everyday and will internalize his wisdom. There is no poverty porn, noblesse oblige, white paternalism, compassionate conservative masturbation, navel gazing at work here. No. None at all.

I would argue that Gene Marks and those like him (there are unfortunately many) do no suffer from “noblese oblige.” No, those who subscribe to the Marks-ist philosophy must believe in the Myth of Democracy, the Horatio Alger fantasy, or their entire world view collapses.

We might prefer a democratic system but at least those dining on mutton at King Henry’s court did not fool themselves into believing they were self-made. They believed in the divine right of birth, which at least in its way acknowledges that if God raised you up, perhaps some sympathy for those below you was in order. This is back when kings and queens would bathe the feet of the poor rather than suggesting, as Newt Gingrich did recently, that they take a bath and get a job.

There is far more class mobility now than in Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s time but Thomas Jefferson warned that liberty required eternal vigilance. If Marks had actually listened to the words of Obama’s speech, he would have realized that the president was advising the same thing regarding the ability of U.S. children to not be defined by the circumstances of their birth. Marks chooses to ignore that, to maintain and perpetuate the Myth of Democracy, as it slowly becomes as fanciful as a kind old man in a sleigh led by eight tiny reindeer.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Social Commentary

 

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