My name is David M. Allen. I’m a psychiatrist who is author of the book "How Dysfunctional Families Spur Mental Disorders: A Balanced Approach to Resolve Problems and Reconcile Relationships" and the blog Family Dysfunction and Mental Health at http://www.davidmallenmd.blogspot.com/
The dustup over Laura Schlessinger’s use of the N-word, as inappropriate and racist as it was, does bring up the interesting question that is the title of this post. She was, in fact, inarticulately and obnoxiously bringing up this very question. We all assume, not without reason, that when a white person uses the word it means something entirely different than when used by a black person.
But does it really?
In response to many criticisms of this post, a few disclaimers: I am making some generalizations here that do not apply to many of the people to whom it could apply. I am discussing very complex behavior that has many other determinants in addition to the ones I am mentioning. Other groups may have similar dynamics. Sometimes to get to the core of an issue, one must oversimplify.
What I am going to say is not much different from what many black academics have said, or what has been pointed out by black celebrities from Spike Lee to Michelle Obama.
I would suggest that the N word-usage by blacks in reference to one another is an example of what psychologists refer to as internalization. Internalization refers to the process by which an individual adopts the attitudes of the surrounding culture as germane to themselves. Internalizations are usually "swallowed whole," without question and without any intellectual processing or digestion of the attitudes in question.
In this case, black people have unfortunately internalized the negative attitude towards themselves that was prominent among the predominant racist white culture during the days of slavery and before the Civil Rights Movement was successful. When black people call other black people the N-word, they are in essence seeing themselves just like Ku Klux Klan sees them.
I first noticed this strange reverse-twist during the Black Power movement during the sixties when I was in college. Ostensibly, this movement was about countering racist attitudes with black pride and empowerment. However, I came across a book by a Panther that denigrated college education as being nothing more than the collected thinking of dead white males. Therefore, it was useless and should not be pursued. Widespread adoption of this attitude by African-Americans would have gladdened a Klansman’s heart.
This whole phenomenon provides a picture-perfect example, not only of internalization, but of how dysfunctional behavior patterns are transmitted from one generation to another. Not only that, but it shows clearly how a dysfunctional pattern gets started in the first place. This transmission is hardly limited to African Americans.
In this case, the original attitudes against education had major survival value back in the days during which any black trying to get ahead through education was "uppity" and in significant danger of being lynched.
Although the danger of such retribution has for the most part passed (which is not to say in any way that white racism is not still alive and well), the original anxiety about pursuing an education has been passed down from one generation to another while the original source of the anxiety has all too often remained hidden. Hence, black kids in the inner city who try to act too smart or are too interested in education are criticized by other black kids for trying to "act white."
This is probably the reason that black kids score lower than whites, on average, on IQ tests. These kids have no motive for taking the test seriously because they have little interest in appearing to be intelligent. The thing about psychological testing is that there is no way to control for the subjects’ motivation to do well or answer honestly.
Many people are too young to remember the days of segregation, which are often referred to as the days of "Jim Crow." Not too long ago, TV producers all had a policy that they would never portray a financially successful black person on a TV program (if they showed one at all). Even before TV, successful blacks were not seen in movies. The fantastic dancing duo, the Nicholas Brothers, would show up in movies in the North in segments that would be excised when the movie got to the South. Great care was taken so that the excision could be done cleanly without affecting the movie’s plot. In movies, Blacks were epitomized by an actor named Steppin Fetchit, whose character was portrayed as stupid and lazy.
The worst manifestation of the internalization of negative stereotypes in today's inner city black culture (middle and upper class Blacks have moved away from this to a great extent) is the "stop snitching" movement. Originally coming from a rap song by Tangg da Juice in 1999, the idea began to be pitched that black people should never report to the police the illegal activities of other black people. The slogan eventually began to appear on tee shirts. In 2007, the rapper Cam’ron publically opined that if a serial killer moved next door to him, he might move away, but he would not report what he knew about the killer to the cops.
Since the vast majority of the victims of Black violence are other Blacks, the "Don’t Snitch" movement is essentially agreeing with the racists who say that a black life is not worth anything, so why bother reporting his murder? Again, this attitude would gladden a Klansman’s heart.
Here are five other aspects of current "ghetto" culture, in no particular order, that I believe have been passed down from one generation to another and that come from the days of Jim Crow - and even from the days of slavery:
- The drive-by shooting. These look suspiciously like Klan firebombings, which were terrorist attacks against houses in the black community by white racists. In my experience in Southern California, drive-bys seemed to start in South Central Los Angeles, back in the days before that part of town turned Latino. The newspapers did not take notice of them for quite some time - until an Asian woman was gunned down on the streets of Westwood - a mostly white theater area.
- Light skinned African Americans are often favored over darker skinned ones, even within their own families, although this is sometimes reversed. This was the subject of Spike Lee’s movie, School Daze. It stemmed from the time when white slave owners routinely raped and impregnated their slaves, and enslaved their own children. The mixed raced children were usually treated better than the others.
- Korean grocers would set up successful and profitable stores in Black inner-city neighborhoods, but the local Blacks did not seem to be able to do it. Characters in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing are seen questioning why this is so, but offering no answers.
- Public housing for Blacks would quickly become shabby and run down, reminiscent of the horrid housing conditions that slaves had to endure, particularly if they worked in the fields and not in the plantation house.
- In slave times, slave parents, particularly slave fathers of slave children, would routinely be sold, breaking up the black family. Children would then be raised by non-relatives. In today’s ghetto culture, men impregnate women and then many of them basically disappear from their child’s life. When I moved to the South, I encountered the term play (relative), usually play aunts or play uncles. This term referred to non-blood relatives of Blacks who would help raise them, and who were considered to be as much family as any blood relative.
I could go on. These "coincidences" are not random, and can most easily be explained by the intergenerational transmission of dysfunctional family behavior patterns.