Blogger: Offensive Language Can Be Empowering

Warning: Language Might Be Offensive to Some

Some say embracing potentially offensive words can be empowering. Pamela Merritt, founder of the blog Angry Black Bitch, discusses her views on feminism, why she started blogging, and what the title of her blog means to her.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead: I've got a few choice words about what listeners have been directing to my inbox. It's my Can I Just Tell You? commentary.

But first, all this week, we've been having different conversations about women and non-traditional paths to power. We've talked about the way some women are embracing contact sports and how that makes them feel powerful. We've talked with a woman who has produced two bestsellers writing about her celebrity bed partners and how that makes her feel in control.

Today, we want to talk about the B word. Some women are now claiming the B word as their own. They say however offensive it may be to others, it's their word; and they'll use it if they want and when they want. And I have to give a strong warning to listeners that the word may come up, because that's what the conversation's about. So if the kids are in the car, you may want to pop in a CD at this point because here comes Pamela Merritt. She blogs from her site.

I guess I should let you tell me what the name of your blog is.

Ms. PAMELA MERRITT (Blogger, AngryBlackBitch.com): My blog is angryblackbitch.com.

MARTIN: So what are you so angry about?

Ms. MERRITT: Oh, goodness. A really good friend of mine told me once that if you're a black woman and you're not angry, you're not paying attention.

I'm angry about social conditions. I'm angry about the lack of support that communities in the inner city get. I'm angry about the lack of cohesion within the black community. I'm angry about the lack of advancement that women of color have made. I'm angry about there still being a stigma about natural hairstyles. I mean, you name it and there's something frustrating, and then there's something liberating in expressing that frustration.

MARTIN: So why the B word?

Ms. MERRITT: That's a good question.

MARTIN: And you use the word. You don't just - you know, I'm using the euphemism just in hoping…

Ms. MERRITT: No.

MARTIN: …that I'm holding on to some of my carpoolers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: We won't drive them away.

MARTIN: But you use the word all over your - you refer to yourself in the third person that way.

Ms. MERRITT: Yes.

MARTIN: You call yourself when you have some - I mean, you have the rare photograph you call yourself a wee-B. You know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Why? Why? Why?

Ms. MERRITT: As a woman, as a woman of color, there's all kinds of things that I grew up in my family knowing were, like, trigger words. And I kind of was knocking them all down through my 20s: black hair as being bad hair, of dark skin as being ugly. And as an angry woman of color, being something that's embarrassing and a stereotypical expression that all black women express our anger in this really crazed, wild-eyed, incoherent, inarticulate way, and that was kind of the last taboo for me. So I started verbalizing that in my friendship circle. And then it kind of took off from there. So when my good friend, Rob Thurman gave me a blog for my birthday…

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. How did the blog start?

Ms. MERRITT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. MERRITT: I used to come into the office, and we used to start off our day, how was your weekend, how was your day, and have some of the best conversations about politics or social conditions. And he turned to me and he said, why aren't you writing this down? And I said, where? And who would want to read it? And he shared with me that blogging is a way to write and not necessarily have to worry or fret about your audience. And then he gave me my blog as a birthday present. And it's the gift that just keeps on giving.

I find humor in some of the things that also anger me. And - that I think there's a way that black women express our frustration, but a lot of people just don't know. So I want a certain percent of the audience to click on that and say, oh, my goodness. This isn't what I expected. I want other people to click on it and say, no, I've heard this voice before, and this just reaffirms that black women are concerned about these things, too.

MARTIN: In fact, can I - other people agree with you. For example, Missy Elliott has a song. I want to play a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song, "She's A Bitch")

Ms. MISSY ELLIOTT (Singer): (Rapping) (bleep) when they say my name. Talk mo' junk, but won't look my way.

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) She's a (bleep).

Ms. ELLIOTT: (Rapping) See I got mo' cheese. Back on up while I roll up my sleeves.

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) She's a (bleep).

Ms. ELLIOTT: (Rapping) You can't see me, Joe. Get on down while I shoot my flow.

Unidentified Man: (Rapping) She's a (bleep).

Ms. ELLIOTT: (Rapping) When I do my thing, got the place on fire. Burn it down to flames.

MARTIN: Missy Elliott was honored the other night at the Vh1 Awards at the Vh1's…

Ms. MERRITT: Right.

MARTIN: …Hip-Hop Honors. And her presenter, Kerry Washington, said that she made this word empowering. Do you see it as empowering, or taking the sting out of it to use the word the way you do?

Ms. MERRITT: I think it's empowering, because it's not that it takes a sting out of it, but it takes - it redirects the energy of it. So when I use the word, I can't tell you how many times somebody has popped up on my site and wanted to leave some little evil comment and they really couldn't - they couldn't find the word to say, and you can tell because I took that away from them. And that was going to be their comment. I want to take back language. And suddenly, we're banning words. In a way, we're also banning or limiting the scope of self-expression.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, what about in this context?

Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Thomas, you stated earlier that you found it offensive for a white man to call a black woman a (bleep). Remember that testimony?

Mr. ISIAH THOMAS (Coach, New York Knicks): Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Man #1: Say yes.

Mr. THOMAS: Yes.

Unidentified Woman #1: Would you find it also offensive for a black male to call a black woman a (beep)?

Mr. THOMAS: Not as much, and I'm sorry to say. I do make a distinction.

MARTIN: Obviously, that was Isiah Thomas being deposed by…

Ms. MERRITT: Right.

MARTIN: …an attorney during his recent trial for sexual harassment related to a female executive, Anucha Brown Sanders. Some people would argue that the liberal use of the word is what allows other people to use it, particularly within the group. And also, I would even bring up the Don Imus example, who was a, you know, broadcaster who lost his job and now maybe coming back to the airwaves, but who is known to have that word as part of the conversation on his programs. And some people have made the argument, including his defenders, that the liberal use of the word with any African-American community is what makes it okay for other people. What do you say to that?

Ms. MERRITT: I'd say that that is, well, it's intellectually lazy. It's a huge leap to me to start comparing use in one context and - to use in another context. I'm going to go ahead and skip over Isiah Thomas just for a second and go to the Imus' use of certain language. And that's really where the nuance of context jumped up at me, because I've heard that N-word more in my own house than I've heard it any place else. And that doesn't mean that his use of it was appropriate.

Black women refer to our hair - some of us. I'm not going to make an absolute statement - refer to our hair using the nappy word, and some of that has some really uncomfortable and unfortunate history. And that's somebody who has a natural Afro.

I've heard it both in a positive light and in a negative light, but the context of it is a huge part of how that's filtered. And I don't think anybody who's thinking clearly and is being honest would honestly say that Don Imus was saying that out of a place of respect in the - the same exact case history that makes women of color uncomfortable with that word sometimes, in certain context, is the same exact history that he was feeding upon. And that's, I think also where Isiah Thomas came from.

The use of the B-word as an oppressive term to put a woman in her place and let her know when she stepped out of line is a fact of history. And as a feminist, I acknowledge that. But I also think that women's empowerment comes from - to a certain extent - us being able to explore those things, those uncomfortable terms and language, and take ownership of it. And if 20 years from now, I decide that I don't want to use the word anymore after I've taken it out, I've test-wrote it, I've used it more than most people do in a lifetime…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: …then that's not a bad thing.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I was speaking with Pamela Merritt, the blogger known as Angry Black B - you fill in the blank. I am reminded in listening to you that black was an epithet at one point. It was considered a fighting word, calling somebody black…

Ms. MERRITT: Exactly.

MARTIN: …was considered a grave insult.

Ms. MERRITT: Exactly.

MARTIN: We no longer - in fact, we've had a whole kind of cultural conversation around reclaiming blackness.

Ms. MERRITT: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Black is beautiful. Say it loud: I'm black and I'm proud - that kind of thing.

Ms. MERRITT: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: Exactly. Clearly, the tide shifts. My grandmother would have been horrified to call ourselves black, dark skinned. In that's - I certainly hope - changed. And…

MARTIN: But black is a color. It's - and I am still wondering if there is a difference, because the B-word has another meaning - a female dog. But then, by definition, the whole reason that word is applied to women is meant to be degrading, on its face. See…

Ms. MERRITT: It's interesting, I mean…

MARTIN: …I'm wondering, do you think you'll envision a time when perhaps girls - you know, my daughter's four, so do you - my youngest is four. I have two older young women of whom I'm very proud. But I wonder by the time my little one is a big girl is whether she will see the B-word in the same way that we now see black, as descriptive - at least, minimally, descriptive and perhaps positive. What do you think?

Ms. MERRITT: I'm not sure. I - my hope is that women of color will take the whole package, so not feel limited that we don't have the right to use any word. But we also know as an individual, what is your tolerance, linguistically? What are you uncomfortable with? What do you like? How do you want to be referred to as?

I know friends of mine who want to be called African-American. I have friends who are offended by the term African-American, but they own all of that. So for them, they're saying this is how I identify. As far as the B-word goes, I think it differs person to person. I know that I personally have encountered people who use it in a way that I don't like. I don't respect or appreciate the way Isiah Thomas used it, but I don't want to ban the word. And I don't want to take the word out of the public discourse because I think there are definitely empowered, fierce voices that are using it in a different way.

MARTIN: Forgive me. Could that be construed as selfish in the same way that people who favor gun control say, you know what? I know you like your gun. I know you think it's useful and important, but it's causing harm. And, you know, you're selfish in choosing to and demanding that you preserve this when it harms so many other people.

Ms. MERRITT: I'm sure it could be the same argument, if itself - well, selfish is not a bad thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MERRITT: I'll go ahead and toss that out. I am very selfish in honoring my right to speech, and I actually honor the right to free speech to the point of uncomfortable. I'm - things that I don't, I can't stand to hear that there are blogs out there that hate me, who would rather have this world not have me on. I will…

MARTIN: Why? Because of your politics, or because of your use of language?

Ms. MERRITT: Because of my politics, because of my race, because I have the audacity to talk about race, gender and politics. There's a lot of racist people out there who will vocalize that racism on that blog, or will try to. I'm not trying to silence them in their space. I think that my right to say what I want to say - which is one of those wonderful, rare American rights - is protected, as long as it doesn't cause anybody - I can't scream out that there's a fire in the movie theater.

The going argument is the same way. To me, it's kind of like the debate that's going on in Washington, D.C. right now, which is over whether or not a handgun ban should stay in effect or whether it violates people's right to bear arms. If the handguns are causing a major public health crisis in death and destruction, then I think that that's a worthy discussion. So I don't have a…

MARTIN: But people would make the argument - I think it is an issue that I thought of it - that the analogy is worth teasing out, because some people like the same argument about the B-word, that it degrades public discourse. It degrades the people to whom it's directed, and that we would be better off if we did not use it.

Ms. MERRITT: And I would…

MARTIN: That we'd set up a firewall, as it will, of like people who care about important public discourse.

Ms. MERRITT: Yes, exactly…

MARTIN: And you clearly have a facility with language. You are a beautiful writer. You speak beautifully. You clearly have command of language. It is a choice. You're not using the word out of ignorance. Clearly a choice…

Ms. MERRITT: Right.

MARTIN: …as a literary device, as for humor - all of the above, all of the above.

Ms. MERRITT: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: So I think the argument stands that you're defending your right to use it. The argument would say would you voluntarily, for the sake of the common good, relinquish it? That would be the argument.

Ms. MERRITT: No. The problems that I see in my community activism aren't about the B-word. I hate to say it, but they're about the way we treat each other as human beings and about how much money we're investing in our communities, whether we're committed to empowering young women in their physical health and their mental health and their education. And I'll go up against anybody any day who says that my blog doesn't support that step towards that empowerment.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Pamela Merritt. She blogs at Angry Black - you know what? I'm going to let you say the name of your blog to see if you can feel satisfied that you got to express yourself. Go ahead. Blame it on me.

Ms. MERRITT: Oh, thank you. Angryblackbitch.com.

MARTIN: She joined us from KWMU in St. Louis, Missouri. Pamela, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. MERRITT: Thank you so much for having me.

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