Words hold immense power. They can both strengthen and destroy. Since the beginning of time, words have brought about both decade-long wars and the greatest love stories. While words fascinate me, their power often frightens me, too. But the fact that words have power should not allow us to ignore deeper systemic issues — it should not cause us to become focused on individual statements instead of on broader social and political problems.
Today, we are often fixated on “banned” words — those that plague contemporary discourse. We obsess over these words especially when they appear on social media. For example, Gina Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican actress, recently came under fire for a video she posted on her social media page. In the video, while singing along to a song, she says the N-word.
Focusing on the immense oversight on Rodriguez’s part in posting this video to her massive number of followers — 4.4 million as of most recently — must not supplant conversations about much larger problems facing black people in America. Moreover, the fact that her identity as a woman of color figured so heavily into her role on CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and the fact that she has come under fire for racially-charged scandals in the past made her decision to post this video much more shocking. After all, what would make her think that such a clip would play over well with a fan base primarily consisting of young women of color?
I am not arguing that the conversation about the N-word isn’t an important one. It is. But I do think there are more pressing issues that are facing the black community. Often, conversations about the N-word overshadow these other issues. Again, that isn’t to say that the conversation about who can and cannot say the N-word isn’t critical. In my opinion, those who do not have the cultural connection to this word — whose ancestors weren’t oppressed by those who used this word against them — are not entitled to participate in this conversation. But my thoughts about the N-word itself are less crucial than those that I have about so many other issues that black Americans deal with every day.
The use of the N-word should not be at the forefront of our national political conversation. Focusing on the use of a singular word rather than discussing systematic racism throughout the country doesn’t enact actual long-lasting change.
Rodriguez, following major backlash, wrote an apology. The apology served more as a justification for her actions — Rodriguez thought it was most important to defend her use of the word, not to address the pain she caused. Earlier, at a panel with other women of color, when Rodriguez was asked about the tangible challenges facing black Americans, she derailed the conversation by pivoting the focus to other communities. The conversation about the N-word seemed to occupy more space in Rodriguez’s head than conversations about serious national problems — like mass incarceration — for black Americans.
The same thing takes place on our campus every day — important topics about racial justice are often derailed into conversations about semantics. A number of us are pursuing careers in which we want to enact actual change. This isn’t possible without discussing head-on the things that make us uneasy — not just the words themselves, but the power structures and systems that undergird the use of those words.
Substance abuse, homelessness, lack of intergenerational wealth, absence of equal rights and a series of other issues exist within the black community. As opposed to focusing on who can and cannot say a word, conversations need to orbit around pursuing real solutions to problems that have existed for centuries.
LEILA JACKSON is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .