On One Hand

March 9, 2007

South Park’s rendezvous with “n_ggers”

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 12:51 pm
Tags: , ,

The premiere episode of the 11th season of South Park, first shown on Wednesday, opens with Stan’s dad as a guest on Wheel of Fortune. In the final round of the game, he is the only contestant remaining, and gets to guess the word on the board to win $30,000. He picks his 5 consonants and a vowel, and after they are revealed, the whole word except for one letter is showing on the board.

The clue is “people who annoy you.” The letters on the board read “N_GGERS.”

Stan’s dad pasues nervously before he solves the puzzle. “I know what it is, but I don’t want to say it,” he says. After a few moments, he shakes off his nervousness. He answers the puzzle.

The audience gasps.

It turns out, San’s dad got the puzzle wrong. The actual answer was “naggers.”

There are surely people across the country who are angry at South Park’s use of the n-word, which was repeated over 40 times during the episode. The episode is not “racist;” it separates the word from its usual meaning, but to utter the word at all will notheless inevitably cause controversy, and doesn’t show any respect to those who are personally offended by the word.

I’m not going to weigh in and decide if South Park’s use of the word is appropriate or not. I think it’s absurd to say the n-word should be banned entirely, as some suggest – but it is a very powerful word, and I understand where people are coming from when they say it should be limited to a powerful context, that re-presents the condition of racism in this country, past and present. Instead, the South Park episode trivializes the word in the context of humor. As a person who is devoutly interested in free speech but also devoutly interested in tolerance and respect, I can’t choose a side in this case. I laughed at the episode, and beleive the creators had the right to make it, but I probably wouldn’t have been bold enough to make it myself.

But in spite of its triviality, the episode also brings up a striking realization that is important for us to acknowledge – that the n-word is more present to us in it’s taboo than it is in any other context. When I saw the word puzzle on the screen, the clue of “people who annoy you” and the letters “n_ggers,” I know what I thought the word was going to be. The word “naggers” didn’t even occur to me until after it was revealed. Did anyone see the symbols “N-GGERS” and honestly not think the missing letter is an ‘i’? I doubt it.

To those of us who have never personaly experienced racism from the position of an ethnic minority, the word Stan’s dad shouted on TV is deeply engrained into our psyches simply because it’s so taboo. A lot of us who are not black must wonder, silently, oh God, what would I do if I ever actually SAID it!? There’s no reason we ever would, but the weight of the word lends itself to that kind of hypothesizing – what if it were an accident? A Freudian slip? The first, awful sign of Teret’s syndrome? The sound of our lungs collapsing when we trip over a rock? Those are ulikely scenarios, but they’ve crossed our minds. We’re always thinking about it because we don’t want to say it, and that perseveration leaves the word always in the back of our minds and actually makes it more present to us. We see “n-ggers” and it is so forcefully present then that we can’t see the alternative; “naggers,” which actually makes much more sense. A lot of white people who put their own anxiety above other issues are going to breathe a sigh of release that the n-word’s repeated use on South Park dilutes its stigma a little bit. That’s not a good thing – just a reality.

But it also makes me wonder if some intolerant attitudes coming from some white Americans actually originate in their anxiety over being perceived as racist. This South Park episode certainly brings the focus to that anxiety. People are almost always more willing to focus on problems in other people than on problems in themselves, so when it comes to fear of being thought of as racist, the anxiety comes out not as a call for self-reflection but as anger at those who they think would most likely accuse them of being racist: on people of color and their allies.

It also makes me wonder if this is the very reason why some want the word to be taboo in the first place; because when the n-word is taboo, they reason, the reality of racism is more real to Americans – it refers to a racially-derrogatory slur of the past rather than a contemporary slang word used in music and casual conversation. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works that way. The people who we want to come around will not. I think the taboo puts the focus on the word and not on the issue, and makes people worry about their own anxiety rather than on acknowleging the horrific things that have happened in the past and present.

There are probably some white people who are going to use the South Park episode to blame black people for being “too touchy” about the n-word, and use the episode as an excuse to that African Americans are the “real” racist ones because “they’re allowed to use a word that we aren’t.” I think that kind of reflection is racist in itself – it doesn’t take much observation to notice that the ones who use the n-word all the time and the black leaders who think no one should use it are not the same people. I don’t think the South Park episode’s intent was to criticize black people, and its creators are not responsible for what people might construe of it. Censorship would be very bad, here, as always. If you are look to the world to find evidence supporting your racism, you’ll find it somewhere whether there’s a South Park episode or not, and the program can’t possibly “contribute to racism” in itself.

I laughed – a lot – at the joke in the beginning of the episode. It was funny and poigniant. I think the episode went downhill after that, because it was entirely based on one joke that was used up after about five minutes.

But there was also a poigniant dialog throughout the episode between Stan and Token, South Park Elemetary’s only black student. Token was quietly offended by what Stan’s dad said. Stan approached Token in school, first to apologise and make sure everything was ok between them, then to explain that it was an accident, that it was no big deal, and that he understood why it would be offensive but since his dad apologised to Jesse Jackson it was now a thing of the past. Token was stubborn and said Stan’s excuses didn’t cut it. The viewer gets pretty frustrated with Token as he repeatedly says it’s “not ok” and that stan isn’t “getting it.”

In the last scene of the episode, Stan finally figures it out; “I don’t get it!” he exclaims. He approaches Token and tells him his revelation is that he doesn’t get it, that he will never understand how it feels to be an African-American and have people show prejudice or use the n-word. “I get that I don’t get it!” he says. Token accepts Stan’s understanding, and Token’s former stubornness finally makes sense. The final message in the episode is an acknowledgment of the fact that white people don’t get and they can’t, and to say things like “I understand” just shows that they really never got it. That is an extremely positive message as far as race relations go.

The South Park episode is usefull because, even though it exaggerates, it calls the world for what it is. Viewers are taken through a process in which they wonder what position the episode is taking. In truth it doesn’t seem to be taking a position. It’s useful because we can see racism in where it really lies – in ourselves – rather than in other people.



  1. i didn’t see this episode, but i agree with all the points you made… i think south park brilliantly approaches issues that are considered taboo in most of their episodes… they take something so serious and joke about it to no end, but under it all there is a “wake up call” type message that people usually get without even realizing it… i know my mom thinks south park is the worst thing ever and the work of the devil, but she would never sit through an episode to really see what they are getting at… sure it’s explicit and comedy, but under it all matt and trey know how to get people to think…

    Comment by keithsuperk — March 10, 2007 @ 1:19 am | Reply

    • I’m not saying the South Park episode is “brilliant;” like I said I really don’t know if I’m OK with this episode. It didn’t sit well with me but I concluded that it is not particularly “racist” and brought up some good points. But I definitely do not agree with everything the program seems to be behind.

      I don’t know if you knew this, but the creators, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, are registered Republican and Libertarian, respectively.

      Comment by Anonymous — March 10, 2007 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  2. I tend to agree with you; I mean, I personally wouldn’t want to be called “racist” for not condemning the South Park episode, for example, and I don’t think the episode itself is racist.

    But I also hear people suggesting that they’re “colorblind” and that seems naive… in this case it seems poignant to point out that everyone has some form of prejudice within them – we’re all human – and it’s impossible to completely ignore race. And then I hear people supporting racial profiling because they’ll say “the black people need to accept responsibility for the fact that most of the crimes are coming from them.” I’ve heard popular, elected politicians saying things like that, and I think such a statement absolutely is racist and should be called out for being so. So I’m a bit torn. I don’t want the definition of racist to be so broad that it includes me, but I do want it to include everyone else leading up to me, which ends up sounding hypocritical.

    Comment by ononehand — March 12, 2007 @ 6:26 pm | Reply

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