a yank’s take on the y-word debate

the y-word debate has me feeling i didn’t submit the right TPS report.

There’s a famous scene at the beginning of American cult-favorite movie Office Space where character Michael Bolton is stopped at a light while driving to work, rapping boisterously along to the profanity-laden Scarface song booming out of his car stereo. The whitest of white guys, Bolton — played by comedian David Herman — is dropping Scarface’s rhymes authoritatively and generally acting a badass… until he notices a black street vendor walking towards his car. He quickly dims both volume and voice, skipping over the F-bombs and N-word heard whispering through his speakers. Once the man passes by, a relieved Bolton resumes his previous menacing lyrical display as if no one was listening for him to offend again.

The scene was a tad cliché, but many a young white male has experienced such a situation — myself included — over the last two decades in the United States. And that resonating with so many of viewers helps to explain why the scene made for such a memorable opening to the movie. It plays on the uncomfortable racial tensions that we’ve all experienced with the use of the word “nigger” and other African American vernacular. While it’s usage is openly condemned by most Americans as racist and offensive, it’s also still commonly used within some circles, particularly in the mass market-influencing entertainment industry.

As a caucasian male with a taste for hip-hop music, the common use of the word in lyrics has always left me in an uneasy grey area. Can I sing along to the lyrics? Better yet, should I?

I get the reasons for its use in African American pop culture: reappropriation. At least that’s the most common reason heard when its use is being defended. Basically, the idea is that using it will strip the word of its former derogatory meaning, diminishing its power as an insult and thus taking away it’s ability to be used as one. Claim the word as your own, and it undercuts the intent of those who try to use it to undermine your humanity.

Problem is, I’m not black and never will be.

So I really don’t have any excuse for claiming it. In fact it was “my” race that went about turning it into the negative term that is today in the first place. So suffice to say, I quietly rap under my breath like Michael Bolton unless I’m 100% sure I’m in complete private. And even then I feel a twinge of guilt every time I do thanks to my upbringing and cultural conditioning.

The N-word, of course, is just one of literally hundreds of taboo words in American culture. All are off limits for use in every day conversation for most of us. We’re slowly eradicating their use as a part of the larger struggle for equality that’s been waged by women, minorities, homosexuals, and other disparaged groups in the civil rights and political correctness movements. Education and efforts by action groups have helped to create a culture where not only are people more accepting, but also shames those who decide to buck the trend and use the words nefariously. And for it, the country is a far more welcoming and tolerant than it’s been in generations past.

So when the Y-word debate sprung to life again over the last few weeks, listening in on both sides of the argument had me feeling like I was Office Space‘s Michael Bolton all over again.

Again, I understand why my fellow Spurs fans across the pond use the word. After decades of being on the receiving end of anti-Semitic abuse from opposition fans due to the Tottenham area’s large Jewish population, Spurs supporters claimed the slur “yid” as their own. Granted, it’s reappropriation hasn’t exactly undercut its use by opposing fans. It’s not uncommon to still hear Jewish insults and hissing — meant to emulate the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other Nazi internment camps — emanating from the opposing stands during televised matches, especially those played against Chelsea and West Ham.

Tottenham Yid Army flag
tottenham have a long history and association with their local jewish community, and often wear that distinction as a badge of pride.

But despite being a long-time Tottenham supporter and knowing the history behind its use, I’ve never exactly felt comfortable using Yid in my articles, tweets or discourse with fellow fans. And it’s for the same PC reasons I’ve never felt comfortable singing the N-word in hip-hop music: I’m not Jewish, and me “claiming” it doesn’t exactly seem like the right thing to do.

What if I use it and unknowingly offend a Jewish person within earshot? That’s certainly a possibility where I live. I also have nano-nightmares of using it on Twitter, only to see it followed by a stream of enraged replies and a mass unfollowing. A less likely scenario seeing as another anti-Semitic slur is more popular here in the States, but I’ve got enough followers that I’m sure it would rub someone the wrong way. I’ve figured out plenty of other ways to offend people on social media, though I’d prefer to keep blatant racism off that list.

To be fair, I’m not against the use of the Y-word — or for that matter the N-word — so long as it’s being used in the appropriate context by an appropriate group. And that includes non-Jewish Spurs fans attending the club’s matches. Too, I think the authorities in UK targeting Spurs fans for its use, instead of targeting the racist fans that hurled the insults in the first place, seems a bit backwards. (Admittedly, it is far easier to “catch” a fan you know is going to sing about it rather than opposing fans who might use it as an insult.) That said, I’m not going to discourage anyone from using it, I just won’t be making use of it myself.

Whether or not the Y-word and other potentially offensive words should be used at all? That’s a larger moral debate that I won’t get any further into here, but I do think eventually their use will dwindle. Why do I think that? Precedent.

To this point, Spurs have done a so-so job of defending their fans throughout the latest rendition of the ordeal. But they’ve also taken steps in the previous years to combat the Y-word’s use as well. Once a staple at White Hart Lane, the Spurs’ Drum was a leader of chants for years. But it’s most popular beat, by far, was the famous Yids chant. As of two seasons ago, the drum was banned. And while the club have never come forward and said the ban was due to the Yids chant, the writing is practically on the wall. Supporters still sing the chant of course, but not as frequently as before. I won’t be at all surprised if further concessions are forced in the future, right or not.

Regardless of how the entire Y-word debate plays out, I’m still going to support Spurs. I’m sure my fellow brethren will, too, even if forced to to end their use of the word. But even if it remains legal to do so, I’ll likely continue on in the awkwardness that is the “Michael Bolton” role and abstain.

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