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What’s in a word? How to confront 150 years of racial stereotypes: Don’t Call Me Resilient EP 1 transcript

3 Feb 2021

This illustration of Little Eva and Uncle Tom by Hammatt Billings appears in the first edition of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture: A Multi-Media Archive

Episode 1: What’s in a word? How to confront 150 years of racial stereotypes

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Vinita Srivastava: From The Conversation, this is Don’t Call Me Resilient, I’m Vinita Srivastava.

Cheryl Thompson: It’s troublesome, and it’s complicated. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from Black men or white men, that word is a traumatic word, period. So either you are celebrating trauma or you’re enacting trauma, but it’s still trauma for me.

VS: I’ll be honest, as I started to work on this episode, I really struggled. It was the fall and there was this really irritating story that was circulating in the news. It was about a group of 34 university professors who wrote a letter in support of the use of the n-word in classrooms. Every single one of the letter writers was white, OK? Every single one. A big part of me was thinking, why is this conversation still happening? Why do white and non-Black people insist on uttering that word, the n-word? And when asked not to use it, why are they fighting for control of it? I mean, clearly, we don’t get enough Black history in schools. But it’s not just about learning about Black history. It’s about unlearning the myths and stereotypes that have been carried forward generation to generation, and with our unlearning, finding a new way forward. That’s the conversation I realized I wanted to have out of all of this. And there is no better person to join me for that than Cheryl Thompson. She’s an assistant professor at Ryerson University in the School of Creative Industries. Cheryl’s book called Uncle, shows how North American society has created racist stereotypes for more than 150 years. And she helps to explain why the production of those stereotypes matters so urgently today.


Read more: How 'Uncle Tom' still impacts racial politics


VS: Cheryl, it’s so great to have you here. Thanks for joining us.

CT: Yes. Thank you for having me.

VS: When you hear these high profile stories of white and non-Black people using the n-word, how surprised are you?

CT: I’m not surprised. I mean, I am Black, I went to university in Canada, I have my own experiences from being an undergrad 20 plus years ago and just knowing academics as I do, it’s not it’s not really shocking to me.

VS: You know, when I think about those 34 profs, I mean, 20 years later, you’re talking about 20 years ago. Do you think that the conversation should have changed now 20 years later?

CT: No, because there’s a lot of academics who live what I would call insular lives. So they’re not really commingling with people who are different to them, are going to challenge them, who don’t have the same cultural background, don’t have the same cultural capital. They’re just not mingling with those people. They might have them as students. But in their mind, diversity is about the surface of the skin. So the classroom looks browner, but they don’t really attach anything to that.

VS: What is the history of this word? Why is it so utterly offensive?

CT: So, in transatlantic slavery, when people of African descent were held in bondage in the Americas, they were often called n-word like that was actually their name. And so that’s the name that they were, that the master, the planter class would refer to Black people. And then, through the emancipation and now we’re quote unquote free, it then took on basically a racial slur. So instead of getting to know your name or instead of getting to know who you were, you were just n-word and then compounded on that through the performance of blackface, which is why I study blackface, to understand race. You know, often there were Black characters in the minstrel show itself who were referred to as n-words. So they were actually caricatures, so that now people could really see, quote unquote, what an n-word was really like. And typically those would have been the characters who were in blackface, who were located on the plantation, who were eating watermelon — all the stereotypes that we still have with us today, eating the watermelon, lusting after chicken, being very promiscuous, all the negative stuff, they were in the minstrel show referred to as n-words. And so then that just rolled into, you know, there were legal decisions in the 19th century, really even through half the 20th century where the judge in writing their decision would actually refer to the Black people as n-word. So even in the legal history, we are being referred to as n-words in a very negative way. And then, you know, where it gets complicated, they always say, oh, hip-hop culture brought the word back because then it wasn’t n-word with an E R, it was n-word with a double-G and A, right? Whatever. The reality is, is that it was actually in the 1970s, again, where there was this kind of emergence of a soul culture. And then with Richard Pryor too coming up, that Black people started to reclaim this word as a kind of cultural slang, like a way to relate to people and and to essentially call other Black people n-word. So it was kind of like an in-group thing. And then through the medium of television and film, it just got reified into something like, oh, Black people call each other that and then hip-hop culture, every song it was n-word, this and that. And then next thing you know, there’s this duality happening where there’s two different ways that word gets used. It either gets used as a word of hate and it’s an anti-Black way or it gets used in terms of in-group culture as as a term of endearment, as like kind of in a joking manner. And so what it basically means is that it’s troublesome and it’s complicated. But at the root of all that is still trauma for me. It doesn’t matter if it’s coming from Black men or white men. That word is a traumatic word, period.

CT: So either you are celebrating trauma or you’re enacting trauma, but it’s still trauma for me.

VS: This is … it’s really time to, you know, have a funeral for it.

CT: Oh, absolutely. But at the same time, you know, I watched Saturday Night Live with Dave Chappelle hosting. I was really shocked how he was throwing the word around and the actual word. He wasn’t saying n-word, right?

VS: No, no, no. Not Dave Chappelle. He used that word five times. I actually counted.

CT: You don’t understand how that man irritates me because 90 per cent of his audience is white. And so when I hear him say it, it feels just as a violence, as when I hear a white professor say it. And I know people say like, oh, he’s coming from his lived experience and this, and this, and this. Come on, man. When anyone uses that word, the actual word in a public forum to an audience that is majority white, we can’t turn them into a victim. OK, it’s very purposeful. It’s very intentional. That’s where I have an issue as well with the professors because it’s intentional. It’s not like they can claim ignorance. It’s not an ignorant thing. They’re literally saying they’re taking a stand, is what I’m saying.

VS: They’re taking a stand that says what? Like what’s the stand?

CT: They cling to those arguments of freedom of speech and freedom of thought in the classroom and that you can’t control what I say in the classroom. But don’t they understand how it makes Black students feel?

VS: Can we not just say don’t use hate speech? Not just in classrooms, but on TV, in editorial newsrooms and sorority houses? Can we not just say, stop using this hate speech?

CT: Right. And the first thing they’re going to say is, but hip hop artists use use the n-word all the time.

VS: So what about that idea of, well, this is my right to use this word. It’s empowering for me or I’ve reclaimed this word.

CT: Yeah, I mean, I do hear that, but, you know. I still think anyone in this day and age, it doesn’t matter what you are, anyone in this day and age who still clings to using the actual n-word, I think is coming from a place of ignorance about their own subjugation and the subjugation of other people. That’s just my own opinion. You know, you rarely … and if you think about the times, that it’s really high profile African American men in particular who have been caught kind of slipping into the n-word, it’s always been in some private setting, in some casual conversation where it just came out. It would be very unusual in a classroom setting for a Black professor to just suddenly start using that word willy nilly. And why is that? It’s because they know that the word is a violence. They know the history. They know the roots. And I think when Dave Chappelle does it or comedians do it, they also know that the word is a violence. They’re just being provocateurs. And so that’s why comedians almost like hip-hop artists — it’s a little bit different because there is an element of provocation in their performance. Why in the world would you, as an academic, compare yourself to a hip-hop artist or a comedian when your your whole impetus is not to be a provocateur? You’re there to educate and to uplift people. It’s actually two very different things.

VS: How is this taken up in other places? How is it travelling?

CT: The meaning doesn’t change the only differences in those other places around the world. There isn’t a Black voice, right? Like there isn’t a counterculture, there isn’t an oppositional culture. And I think in the North American context, we especially in the African American context, you know, if you were to go back to people at the end of the Civil War and the reconstruction era, a lot of white people might have said there’s no racism in America anymore. Slaves were free. Meanwhile, know did you go and check in with some African Americans to see what their life was actually like? And the answer is no. You know, in the book, Uncle, I was trying to really tease out how nostalgia works. And in a way, I think that nostalgia is one of the reasons I believe that we can’t have real conversations about race because you’re always going to have a majority group that is nostalgic for some moment in the past where they felt like things were were great, everybody was happy. What they don’t realize is that greatness was created because all of these, quote unquote, racial and ethnic others had no voice. We were literally silenced into our communities and into just our private homes to deal with the trauma that we would have been experiencing almost every time we left our house. While you were enjoying the good old days, we were actually living in days that were filled with a lot of violence toward us. And so I think that’s what the dominant culture really, maybe some people are starting to wake up to, but a lot of people are still asleep as it relates to the reality of that past and present, like how the past connects to the present. And it’s really difficult to alert somebody to the fact that what they think is true was actually a lie.

VS: Oh, that’s a good one. What they think is true is actually a lie. So let me back up a little bit, because I just want to explain that your book pulls its name from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What are you trying to do with this book when you’re going back to refer to this very iconic book?

CT: You know, pose the question, why can’t Black people be individuals? Like, why can’t we just be ourselves? Why do we always have to toe the group line? I’m really writing that book to address this sentiment, to get at the fact that the reality of the North American context is that no racial other, Black, South Asian, Asian can truly ever think for ourselves. We are always going to be connected to our group. And so my question is, why would you want to disconnect from your community? And so Uncle Tom’s Cabin, like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, created this archetype of a Black male who was like ridiculously loyal to white oppressors to the extent that they would even rat on other Black people who tried to seek their freedom. So these people who are so loyal to these systems and structures that are actually harming Black communities. And if you’re a Black person and your life, is not going well, it’s basically your fault. You’re not working hard enough within the system and structure that has been created, as we know, with ideologies of white supremacy. And so I think that’s why, you know, where we are in the 21st century. It’s really kind of a dangerous time in many ways because you have the hyper-rise of neoliberalism and this hyper-individualism that really attempts to disconnect us from our communities. And so what you’ll see is that these people often then get called an Uncle Tom. And that’s where Uncle Tom gets invoked, and so the Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, who then mutated in many forms from the theatre to film after that novel, gets invoked because there’s a sense that these Black individuals are disloyal to the community. And so the question that I try to grapple with in the book is. I answer the question, do they owe the community loyalty? And I basically say, yes, they do.

VS: So I want to go back then for a minute back to Dave Chappelle, because the Saturday Night Live monologue, he opens it up with his grandfather or his great grandfather. And in some ways what he’s trying, what it seems like he’s trying to do, is connect himself to his community and, you know, for him. I don’t know, but for him, when he uses that word, it seems like he’s drawing a line between him and his grandfather.

CT: Yeah, I mean, I really do get it because there is a sense of, you know, this is how we talk to each other. This is how we talk to each other, and this is how we’ve always talked to each other. But again, what I’d like to remind people is that, again, hurt people, hurt people. So you’re going to use the same language of your grandfather. Think about the era that your grandfather would have grown up in dealing with extreme trauma probably every single day, never healing it, never doing any of that work. And now here you are in the 21st century, essentially carrying out the same narrative as your grandfather did. To me, I find that a really sad story because you’re not breaking the pattern. You’re not breaking the law. To use the language of Iyanla Vanzant, you’re not breaking the pathology that’s in your bloodline as it relates to how you see yourself and just well-beingness, you know, like that’s why I have an issue. It is not a coincidence that Black women — you don’t hear a lot of Black women who have a public profile using that word.

VS: Yeah, it seems like when you look at it and we look at the comedy and we look at it like a lot of men, it’s not women. I mean, in comedy, but also personal life as well, right?

CT: It’s not, and I think, again, part of this is about self-work, self-reflection, and then ask yourself the question. I believe that language can uplift, but it can also be violent. I get humour. I understand the use of sarcasm and humour. For me, it’s always to kind of push the limit of people. Just kind of push … it’s like, you know, and they say, oh, you’re pushing my buttons, in many ways like the comedian is here to push the cultural buttons. Things in our culture that maybe nobody’s addressing or we’re not really dealing with. I used to love Chris Rock because he’s basically talking about how racist people are, but he would do it in, a really funny way of like something that is — but when you really strip the joke down, it’s a traumatic story that he’s telling. And so for me and I’m not the only one saying this, there’s a lot of people right now talking about Black trauma and the ways in which — especially through George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, all those people over the summer months — the ways in which the media just kept showing the clips of their death like that is so traumatic for a community, and I think while we deal with the anti-Black racism, we never deal with the trauma. And that’s what has me. I think maybe that’s why Chappelle’s set just kind of hit me a little bit differently, because I’m like, you know, to me, he looks like a man who’s still dealing with his own trauma.

VS: Yes, he does. Yes, he does. He’s saying that, basically he is saying that, he’s owning that part.

CT: How do we as the audience not only interpret that, but how do we carry that? And I think that’s the question of the comedian in the 21st century. If we go back to the Richard Pryor days. You know, Richard Pryor, he, too, lived through a lot of trauma, but his set was funny. And his set made you feel like life, even though you were talking about really traumatic things … there was just a different tone. And it’s not just him. You can go back to many Black comedians of the day, like Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley, like you could go through the list of, like the old time comedians from like the ‘60s and '70s, even though they too had lived and were living a trauma, their jokes were just … the tone was just lighter. I just find in the last couple of years, if you really listen to comedians, their tone is just a little dark. And I don’t know if it’s because of our time, the culture. It’s just a different tone in the ways that they talk about race that almost don’t even feel like jokes. It’s just like, it’s like turning. It’s almost like they’re just putting us all through an X-ray. And it’s really painful and revealing because you’re just like seeing everything and you’re thinking, you know, for me, I think what now? Is there a call to action in this set, like, should we be doing something? You know, maybe we’re tired of laughing over the same racial situations.

VS: That’s what I’m wondering, too, when you talk about Richard Pryor and you know of Redd Foxx, but Pryor especially, I mean, that his traumas, his deep traumas became known much later. But he’s a legend in many ways and an icon for so many people and set the tone. And maybe what you’re saying is things haven’t changed enough since then.

CT: Yeah. And yet we’re still being kind of fed jokes that are kind of about the same thing. So that’s why I struggle today with Black comedians, African American comedians who are still doing who are still, I would say, in the lineage of of Richard Pryor. So we’re talking about Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle now and and even even Eddie — I mean, look at Eddie Murphy. Eddie Murphy doesn’t even do stand-up anymore. And to me, I feel like he probably doesn’t do it because he probably has healed, you know, doesn’t have any more trauma to share with us because he’s done his healing work. And I think even Chris Rock recently did — he was in an interview where he talked about his trauma, like he actually started to open up about his trauma and the things that he’s lived through. And that speaks to why even his stand-up and his movie roles have changed. So I think part of this is always asking the question, to what extent are people just sharing their pain with you and to what extent are you as an audience able to understand that and not interpret that pain as just humour? Because I watch … I’m telling you that Dave Chappelle set, that was not just jokes.

VS: Oh, no, no, no. That was very clear. You told me a story about Richard Pryor’s writer. Do you remember that?

CT: Oh, yeah. Paul Mooney. Oh, I love Paul Mooney. Like Paul Mooney will change your life because — Paul Mooney — and Paul Mooney talks about race. His whole set is about race. And even Paul Mooney buried the n-word, like 10 years ago now, and his whole set used to be n-word this, this, this and this. He finally had his moment where he’s like, you know what, I can’t with this anymore. And I think what got him is that I think it was a combination of things. But I think he remembers saying that he made a joke, he made some joke that was riddled with the n-word. And he looked out at that audience and he just saw white people laughing a little too hard. And it was just like, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

VS: Time to stop. Time to stop, basically.

CT: And because the truth is, it is not 1975. Richard Pryor’s era is over and so do we need to start reconceptualizing what we say in public and how we show up as Black people? You know, you have to always put things into context. At that time in the '70s — I mean, the 1970s was really the moment where Black people really became present in the media culture, whether it was TV sitcoms or Black-centred films. There was a lot of cultural production in the 1970s, but that was the first time. It really never existed before. Why is it in the 21st century, the 2020s, we’re still doing the same thing as if the culture is the same? Well, the culture is not the same. I just think that has to start with the way that you show up and the way you treat yourself. It’s both.

VS: Can you to say that one more time? The idea about how to end this is partly about how you show up yourself.

CT: So, it’s not just about the dominant culture changing, growing and seeing you for who you are. It’s also about how you as an individual in the 21st century show up in your world. And how you present yourself. And let me be clear. I’m not talking about the politics of respectability where you have to speak a certain way and dress a certain way to please white, your white employer — I’m not talking about any of those things that would, in my opinion, fall under Uncle Tom-ism or Mammyism, where you’re doing things to please the white. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying when you’ve done your work and so you’ve addressed the traumas that you’ve dealt with in life, you’ve addressed the way that you’ve treated people in your personal life, that means when you’re in the room and something racist does happen in that in that space, the way it’s going to affect you, it’s just going to be very different than if you haven’t done the work and the way in which you can now use that moment to actually create a safer space for you and other Black people that come behind you. Again, that’s going to depend on the work that you’ve done on yourself. That’s what I’m saying to you, it’s very easy for Black people to become victims to the racist world that we live in. And so everything they do is from a place of victimhood or look what they’re doing. Look how they’re treating us. And X, Y and Z.

VS: I’m thinking about what you said right now, because I’m thinking also about, you know, young students in the classroom, for example, who just may be in a very vulnerable stage in their lives and then hearing racial slurs from people they may look up to, from their profs, and how that might impact them. Are we expecting too much from them to say, well, come to the classroom with all this trauma worked out? I’m just thinking out loud with you, Cheryl.

CT: I think what I’m talking about is a process, and that process is not going to be complete when you’re 19. I’m very attuned to that. What I really mean is, you know, I think today’s university in Canada, there will probably be at least one —there will be Black faculty. There’s not going to be a lot of us, but there will be Black faculty. And unfortunately, some of those Black faculty have not done their work and they’re walking around toxic as hell, OK. And what that means is they’re making life more challenging for young Black students who are behind them, because just as your examples say, you’re a Black student in your class and you’re experiencing something in the class, like a microaggression or even overt racism from your professor who is white, you want to know that maybe you’re in a university or a school where you can approach Black faculty who are going to be there to help you. You don’t want to feel like, well, I can’t, I’m not going to say anything to that faculty member because they’re actually going to be worse than the white person. So, that’s what I mean. Who has to do the work? It’s not the young. It’s the elders who are in positions of authority at the university, at the business, at the school. It’s that echelon. It’s the Dave Chappelle generation who need to do our work. And the reality is that many of us are not. And what we’re doing is that we’re just leaving a toxic path behind us that is just making it even more challenging for young Black students and young Black people who are coming up behind us.

VS: So this is a huge question, but what are some of the active steps that we can take to try and end this centuries-long racist, racial dynamic?

CT: Well, you know what, it’s funny, we’re talking about ending this dynamic. In a way, we always have to go back to the past. For me and I go back to W.E.B. Dubois, writing at the turn of the 20th century, whose whole impetus was to — him and Frederick Douglass, and there were many others. But Dubois was really trying to get people to understand that you can create your own excellence. And as you create that excellence, you have to look back to your community who is struggling. So if you’re becoming excellent, you can’t now say, oh, I made it. And then you close your doors. You close your shutters and you’re like, I don’t need to deal with anyone else who’s not made it. No. What we do is, once you make it, you have to then pay it forward and and look back and try to bring up everyone. To me, my focus in life is always about empowerment, not just self-empowerment, but community empowerment. I think it’s just a more powerful place to work from than to cure the dominant culture of anti-Black racism.

VS: Yeah, and then, I guess, related to that, what does allyship look like to you?

CT: Well, for me, allyship looks like not trying to see situations from your eyes, but actually trying to see it from my eyes. So that means you have to suspend what I would call … the dominant culture tends to valorize the rational mind. So that means whenever something happens, a situation of racism, typically, sometimes the white response will be, well, that can’t be the case. Oh, you must you must have misinterpreted. They’re trying to rationalize something that is irrational, whereas often the Black person is saying, no, I saw what happened. I felt it. So we’re on a level of affect, they’re on a level of rationality. Allyship means you have to get on that level of affect and actually feel what what I’m saying. To me, I think about the white allies that I do have, they feel what I’m saying. So I don’t have to explain feelings to them so that they can understand it in a rational-mind sense. And I think, to me, allyship is also interpersonal because the truth is, in order to be an ally, you kind of have to know, you kind of have to know the person.

VS: Well, listen, Ryerson University is very lucky to have you. And that community of students is very lucky to have you.

CT: Yes, that’s facts.

VS: Thank you so much. I know that you have to run, but I really appreciate the time that you took today.

CT: Yeah, you’re welcome. This was a good conversation.

VS: That’s it for this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient. Lots to take away from that conversation. Let us know what you’re thinking. We’re on Twitter. Just tag me @WriteVinita and @ConversationCA and use the hashtag #DontCallMeResilient.

Don’t Call Me Resilient is a production of The Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced with a grant for journalism innovation from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. Our producers are Nahid Buie, Nehal El-Hadi and Vicky Mochama with additional editorial help from our intern Ibrahim Daair. Reza Dahya is our technical producer and sound guru. Anowa Quarcoo is in charge of marketing and production design. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor and Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. Special thanks also to Jennifer Moroz for her indispensable help on this project. And if you’re wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that’s the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.

Thanks for listening, everyone, and hope you join us again. Until next time. I am Vinita, and please, don’t call me resilient.

The Conversation


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