Monday, February 28, 2011

People Give Words Power

by Brittney Gerald

This week’s articles explore the process of linguistic appropriation, the phenomenon in which “speakers of the target language…adopt resources from the donor language, and then try to deny these to members of the donor language community” (Hill 158). This process demonstrates the ways in which language can be used to perpetuate racism and stereotypes. Interestingly enough, in this interview of Jay-Z in Oprah Winfrey’s magazine, the rapper asserts that Hip-Hop music has acted as a uniting force between races, particularly blacks and whites:

“You know, hip-hop has done so much for race relations, even with its ignorance…without directly taking on race, we’ve changed things just by being who we are. It’s difficult to teach racism in the home when your kid loves Jay-Z. It’s hard to say, ‘That guy is beneath you’ when your kid idolized that guy.”

200910-omag-jay-z-102-220x312.jpgJay-Z argues that hip-hop—specifically rap—as a lyrical expression of language not only brings different races together, but also helps to prevent racism. Jay-Z is right in that whites have become prominent consumers of hip-hop music: “Sales figures for rap music among middle class white teenagers have sky-rocketed” (Cutler 434). Jay-Z argues further that this increasing white participation in hip-hop culture has helped improve race relations and offset racism. His logic is that parents will have trouble belittling their child’s idol, who might happen to be black. He therefore is arguing that hip-hop’s increasing popularity among white consumers serves to reconcile the dynamic of the “other”. In Kiesling’s article, “Stances of Whiteness and Hegemony in Fraternity Men’s Discourse”, he describes how fraternity men (as well as many others) mark the other. This “discursive metastrategy…situates the speaker as a member of a dominant, or central, White social group by creating a marginalized non-White category” (Kiesling 102). Jay-Z seems to be claiming that rap music challenges this process.
            However, Cutler’s article demonstrates how this matter becomes much more complicated than that. The situation goes beyond the idealistic concept that rap, as a linguistic phenomenon, acts to merely unite the races and repel racism. In fact, the articles show how the opposite effects can, and often do, take place. Cutler concedes that “at first glance one might conclude that young whites embracing hip-hop represents a cultureal rapprochement between blacks and whites and perhaps even the creation of a new multi-ethnic youth culture” (439). However, the article demonstrates how white appropriation of the black vernacular evident in many hip-hop lyrics is often very theatrical and artificial, and lacks a real connection and understanding between whites and blacks. In fact, “hip-hop is increasingly claimed to be a multi-cultural lifestyle rather than a symbol of ethnic group identity, particularly by white adolescents but also by others” (Cutler 435). Consequentially, it “seems to allow whites access to a commodified, ephemeral black experience at various moments or phases of their lives without requiring overt claims of black ethnicity” (Cutler 435). This means that whites are able to “borrow” or “appropriate” black cultural phenomena through hip-hop without laying claims to it. In short, through their appropriation of hip-hop, whites are able to participate in black culture while still maintaining their distance from blacks themselves.
            For example, Cutler describes the case of Mike, who appropriates what he believes to be hip-hop culture to his daily life. However, as he gets older, Mike shifts from an “active identification with African Americans”…to an expression of “resentment toward his African American peers” (435). Mike does not express a feeling of unity, but rather of isolation: “they ‘always hang together’ and ‘separate themselves’ ” (Cutler 435). In this case, and undoubtedly in many others, Mike’s appropriation of hip-hop culture does not ultimately result in unity and improved race relations. In fact, he viewed “himself in opposition to the black community” (Cutler 435). In this case, appropriation ironically acts to perpetuate racial divisions and tensions instead.
            In this video clip of Jay-Z interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey Show, he explains why he feels comfortable using the N-word in his rap lyrics: 

“People give words power…and for our generation, what we did is, we took the word and we took the power out of that word. We turned a word that was very ugly and hurtful into a term of endearment. There’s still intention behind what you say…because if we just start removing words from the dictionary, you can just make up another word the next day. So if we don’t address the problem…the problem is racism. That’s really the problem.”

In this clip, Jay-Z (possibly subconsciously) implies a number of linguistic ideologies. He presents the idea of taking a word and making it your own, similar to appropriation. However, in this case, he expresses the possibility of changing a word’s meaning. The article, “The Linguistic Facts of Life”, by Lippi-Green declares “all spoken language changes over time” (11). Since language changes over time, this proves that it is constructed and not natural or inevitable. Jay-Z argues that rappers “took the power out of that word”, claiming “people give words power”. This again emphasizes that language is constructed, since people give words meaning and power. However, which people have the authority (and, consequentially, the ability) to change words’ meanings? He does not directly address this question, but he seems to be aware that his role as a famous hip-hop artist, along with the others, gives him influential power and a certain level of linguistic authority. Hill asserts that “one of the implications of…linguistic appropriation is that it must involve elites, people with the wealth and power to enforce the reorganization of the linguistic universe” (Hill 159). Jay-Z declares that the real problem is not the N-word itself; it is the racist ideology behind the word. He argues that eliminating words from our vocabulary will not solve the problem of racism, because people can just create another racist word to take its place. Again, he exposes language as an ideological construction. To him, words are just words; what is really significant is the people who give them power. 
            However, Oprah adamantly disagrees with Jay-Z’s appropriation of the N-word. She admits that the word highly discomforts her, because it reminds her of the civil rights era and the blacks who were lynched by racist whites using that term in a derogatory way. Despite Jay-Z’s emphatic argument about people giving words power, Oprah still struggles to detach the word form the hateful ideology it held for many years past. She strongly resists attempts to change the word’s meaning, and promotes eliminating the word altogether. This demonstrates how strongly people hold onto the implications of language and shows how language change is often very gradual due to heated resistance. Their argument shows how words are so deeply embedded within our culture and history, and that change is rarely ever easy. In this case, Jay-Z and Oprah agree to disagree; however, these types of ideological debates continue to dominate linguistic discourse. 

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