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Coons and Niggers–When Individual and Collective Dignity, AND Internalized Oppression Compete

Take out your dictionaries and thesauruses, and put on your thinking caps and your lenses, because this is another extremely complex subject. It is one that I am sure everyone will have an opinion, whether it is for the use of these words or not for the use of these words. As with every essay I write on the subjects of racism, white supremacy and evaluating racialized words, my goal is to make you think critically about what it is you are doing, saying and believing. It is not meant to change your minds, but to ensure that you understand what may actually be motivating some of your unconscious choices. I was inspired to do this essay by one of my friends and fervent commenters on social media, Tonia Teeter, who was responding to one of the picture posts I put on my Facebook feed about the woman called the “Black Prop” during the Cohen hearing. In fact, this essay is dedicated to her and her thoughtful and intelligent discussions on the subject. Many of the respondents to the two article posts on this woman called her “coon,” among other names. But “coon” stood out as the expressed choice of the Black respondents to both posts.


Indeed, the subject of Black people using such words to describe themselves; words created by white supremacists for the express purpose of changing the very nature of the Black being from human to animal during the Enslavement, is both complicated and polarizing for Black people in the U.S. today. Many have rationalized these words for everyday language as either a term of endearment or for use as the best of the worst epithets describing the worst betrayals of Black people by Black people. Indeed, Black people have embraced and covet these words and constrain their usage to themselves for themselves – a white person dare not utter a stutter of either. In response to my rejection of the use of words such as “coon,” Tonia suggested using the name, “Sambo,” instead, referring to the Black antagonist in the fictional story, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” detailing life during the Enslavement. I explained in my response, that while the writer of the novel used the name for one of her characters, one must question her motives for using a Black, ethnic African "racialized" name like "Sambo," for the "bad Black" in the story and "Tom," an Americanized name for the "good negro." I wouldn’t comment on whether it is a good or bad substitute for coon, since, like coon, it was a “created” name for the “character” in the book, much like coon is the “characterization” of Blacks by whites, and it is a decision for the person deciding to use either, not mine.


For certain, the Enslaved had their share of “Negroes” who betrayed other enslaved people for “favors” from their Masters. Perhaps the favor was no beating before bedtime, or an extra piece of fat back, or even perhaps the opportunity to attend worship on Sunday. We can reasonably assume that the “Black Prop” gets favors. Surely a favor was an appointment as a Director of HUD, when clearly, as an event planner for one of Trump’s sons, she is not as qualified as other career people already working there. We must remember, there are always fundamentally subliminal reasons for the "why" in the "what" done by white supremacist influencers in America. Now, Let’s talk about “dignity.” We each have our own, individual and personal dignity. We hold onto it with our dear lives. It is precious to us. Each and every person has or should have a personal code of ethics, which is one of the driving forces behind what dignifies us as humans in this life. But because of the degradation and dehumanization of our ancestors throughout our history, we also developed a fragile, “collective dignity” as Black folk. This collective dignity is carved out of the stench of the atrocities of the Enslavement, of being coons and niggers, and the inhumanity of racism. Hunted by “coon” hounds in the South for any attempts at escaping to freedom from slavery, we virtually became like the “racoons” or “coons” these hounds were named for.

With our never-ending resilience, we created our own definition of ourselves using the true reality of our lives, with the denunciation of the oppressors’ definition of our being, in favor of who we know ourselves to be as a people. No. Coons and Niggers was a construct, a naming convention designed to dehumanize us and make us animals like racoons and cattle, and other names like Heifer, Buck and Pickaninny. No. We refused their definition of us. We were not Coons and Niggers. Not us. We were “dignified” by our rejection of the definition created for us by white people, and “dignified" by a new definition we rightly created for ourselves. This collective dignity, believe it or not is an integral part of our collective “Blackness.” So, when someone betrays the dignity of what is so integral to our own definition and concept of Blackness, why wouldn’t we want to immediately distance ourselves from that person? When we are offended by Black people who disrupt the fragility of our collective Blackness, we lash out against that person immediately, because our "collective" dignity has been adversely affected. In terms of the “Black prop,” we rightly distance ourselves from people like her -- we are "not like her" -- and don't want to be associated with her.

Note that I use the word “her.” She is an individual, as in just one person. It is important to distinguish the oneness of the word, “her,” since we need to understand why the behavior of “one” person seems to affect us “all.” Fast backward through history to the Enslavement once again, that thing that some of us do not want to attribute any of the unconscious behavior handed down through generations. During the Enslavement, the poor behavior of one slave ALWAYS reflected the behavior of them all and affected them all, whether hobbling of the feet of a runaway slave and subsequent lock down of all the others, or watching unmerciful beatings as an example for similar behavior, rest assured, they were collectively reflected as one affected as one. This was by design, and the mentality has persisted to this day. The behavior of one person sharing the same skin color is still considered a reflection of the entire race.

Now, take these racialized words, “Nigger and Coon.” What possibly better words for Black people to use than the vilest representations of our struggle to overcome white supremacy and to distance ourselves their definition of us – that which we want to believe we have escaped – than these particular words? Of course there are others, but these two words are forever etched into the lexicon of U.S. culture and are by far, the most popular in the vernacular of racialized words in America. In much the same way that we created a new definition of ourselves, we tend to rationalize racialized words and attempt to make them more palatable in our discourse, if only to desensitize their potential destructive power. This is one of the most terrible and most confoundingly complex parts of what the internalization of oppression has done to the unconscious of some Black people in America today. What is internalized oppression? It is the turning inward of that which oppresses us so that we eventually begin to oppress ourselves. This was also by design. Why: because they created the narrative for us generations ago. This is the same narrative we have been struggling to overcome for generations. They know human nature. They have studied it and have it down to a science, to put that literally. These are the words, the phrases and the definitions they created. It is this internalization of oppression which wrestles daily with the fragile collective dignity we share as Black people and it is what gets lost when these words are used by "us" to describe "us" when we are angry with people who share the same skin color as "us."

While it is important to UNDERSTAND the language of the oppressor, when we use their language against ourselves, we are "validating" and "reinforcing" THEIR "collective" ideology, belief, condition and definition of "us." “Coons and Niggers,” are reborn again and again, not just a construct used to negatively define human beings who were placed into bondage generations ago in order to dehumanize them. We are talking about a system and people who thrive on continued mockery and is the very reason it felt okay to trot out the “Black prop” in the first place. It is the reason why, so many generations ago, the slave masters used people just like her to divide us from our innate collective unity by differentiating “who got the chitterlings in the garbage and who got the crust off the bread on the table in the house.” Therefore, like it or not, whether she is eating from the table or the garbage she is still considered “Black” by white people as long as white supremacy as an ideology exists and they are banking on our shared belief that the behavior of one of “us” reflects on “all of us,” and we can be assured that when we call her those names they created, we are virtually legitimizing the very existence of "coons,” no matter how we try to rationalize and make these words more palatable.

Understanding that validating these words is even more damaging to us than the individual behavior of an individual person – even if that person shares our skin color is going to be a challenging exercise among Black people as we move into the future of an individualized world – a world which is still foreign to Black people even as we have been living it in for the past two generations among individualized white persons – but that is another essay for another time. The important things to ask yourself are these: does what she did mean that YOU share any shame? Does her behavior affect your personal, individual dignity? Is she you? If the answers to these questions are no, then realize you do not need to validate your individual dignity or our collective dignity because of the misbehavior of an individual who shares our color. Am I telling you to stop using the words? No. Do I hope my essay will affect how you think about these racialized words going forward? I hope so, but as always, my number one goal is to make you think closely and consider critically much of what we take for granted in terms of how we think and the racialized words we use. I am not trying to change your minds but open them.


See MALCOLM X - The difference between the House Negro and the Field Negro

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Copyright 2020 Cynthia Alease Smith, Ed.D.