'OK, Boomer' Is Not The N-Word. The N-Word Is The N-Word.
The president of the University of Oklahoma condemned a professor this week who used the n-word in class. It wasn't like, "Wow, isn't it a good thing I'm saying the n-word and not the actual racial slur because that'd be CRAZY!" No, he went full Quentin Tarantino right in the middle of Black History Month.
The professor, Peter Gade, is also director of graduate studies at the university's journalism school. He decided to cosplay every white character in Huckleberry Finn so he could make a point — a very bad point — about social media and journalism. He claimed that the memeable phrase "OK, boomer" is similar to the n-word, which is a racial epithet ... perhaps the racial epithet.
From the New York Times:
"While the professor's comments are protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom, his comment and word choice are fundamentally offensive and wrong," said the interim president, Joseph Harroz Jr.
"The use of the most offensive word, by a person in a position of authority, hurt and minimized those in the classroom and beyond," Mr. Harroz said. "Our university must serve as an example to our society of both freedom of expression and understanding and tolerance. His words today failed to meet this standard."
Gade is theoretically an intelligent person. He should understand that ageism is very different from racism. For one thing, black people sometimes beat the odds and grow old. Also, words have power behind them. There's history and context. You might find "OK, boomer" annoying. The casual use of the word might sting a little and even take the thrill out of having a member of your generation occupy the White House for 27 consecutive years. (Yes, Barack Obama is a Boomer. Gen X can't have nice things.) However, no one shouted, "OK, boomer" while hanging you from a tree. Nor did a crowd of human-resembling people viciously shout the phrase when you were just trying to attend elementary school.
Despite observable reality, Boomers might legitimately feel as if they are losing control of the world, and “OK, boomer" is a rallying cry of the younger generations that seek to replace them. Such apparent contempt, even if mostly in jest, might alarm them. After all, these were the lyrics from a popular song of their youth.
The old get old
And the young get stronger
May take a week
And it may take longer
They got the guns
But we got the numbers
Gonna win, yeah
We're takin' over
The true power in a slur comes when someone is helpless to resist, to express their rage, to fight back. That's never been the case for “OK, boomer." People are free to say “fuck you“ in response without literally losing their lives. There's a classic “Saturday Night Live" sketch where Chevy Chase is interviewing Richard Pryor for a job. He tests him with a word association game. It starts benignly enough: What first pops into his head when he hears “dog." But it quickly escalates. Soon, Chase is spitting racial epithets at him and a furious Pryor responds in kind. (There aren't as many epithets for white people, so Pryor has to use “honky" more than once.) When Chase calls him the n-word, Pryor is done playing games. His response is “dead honky."
It's a cathartic moment, but we know that in real life, Pryor would have to swallow his tongue and take Chase's abuse. Chase has all the power. Pryor might have a family to support. He'll sacrifice his pride for them and just add this moment to one of countless indignities. It is impossible to separate the n-word from America's inherent racial power imbalance. Even now, in our post-racial utopia, we don't even have the power to convince a college professor not to use that word in public, likely in the presence of a black student.
Gade is a tenured professor so is unlikely to lose his job for his gross error in judgment. There are relatively few black professors in academia, let alone tenured. Gade is hardly powerless.
After student objection, Gade apologized.
In his email to students, Mr. Gade wrote, "I made an inexcusable mistake this morning in class with my choice of a word."
"I was wrong. I am sorry. I realize the word is hurtful and infuses the racial divisions of our country, past and present. Use of this word is inappropriate in any — especially educational — settings," he added.
America has taken so much from black folks over the years. Can you just let us have our racial epithet?
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He's on the board of the Portland Playhouse theater and writes for the immersive theater Cafe Nordo in Seattle. Tickets are on sale now for his latest Nordo collaboration, "Curiouser and Curiouser," an adaptation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." It promises to feel like an actual evening with SER (for good or for ill).