Alchemy, the n-word, Borat, and anti-Asian hate
I’m sending a thank you to the Still Processing podcast, for helping me understand a little more about the many ways that words embody power. Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris have a superpower for seeing ideas which are hovering above us — ones we live with and experience as a kind of miasma — but of which we can see only the faint outlines, like a heat shimmer. The two hosts are able to trace these onto paper, doodle in their vital organs, and understand what they thrive on; and they’re generous enough to share this ability with us each week.
In mid-March, they posted what must’ve been an especially difficult episode to craft, about the n-word. I’m stuck thinking about how Jenna Wortham described its use by Black people — that she is in awe of the power they wield when deploying it. As they traced the sources of this power, I remembered the way some authors have described the functioning of magic, as being entangled in words, and in naming. In the Broken Earth trilogy, for example, N. K. Jemisin describes her wizards of geologic power mis-pronouncing the words of spells, so as not to activate the magic they hold while teaching them to others. And many authors have used the idea that knowledge of one’s “true name” can unlock a kind of power over them — or that knowledge of special words, or ancient languages, could be a means of enacting power in the world. Such an old, evil power as the n-word evokes, nonetheless continues to be “let out” into the world, and the word draws continued sustenance from the damage it incurs each time that “chest is opened,” as Wortham puts it.
Wortham and Morris go on to describe the word, in the latter half of the episode, as having been transmuted into a new form, even a new pronunciation, and they discuss the ways in which it is used today by Black people. I echo the awe with which they unpack part of how that alchemy was achieved, for example through the work of Richard Pryor. (I’m very curious to hear their upcoming episode on Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, where she makes a study of his work.) But it’s not gold that I see coming from lead; I picture it, rather, as a kind of ancient weapon, a heavy artifact, a cannonball, which can somehow ricochet back and forth as fast as the bouncy ball in Men in Black, punching through walls and spreading deadly chaos.
The reforging of that word is not like Elrond combining the shards of Narsil — it’s not a broken thing to be turned into a heroic sword. If anything it’s the reverse, a splitting and recasting into shards or daggers, which glow with power only when held in Black hands, and only with the knowledge and understanding of their origins. Maybe that’s how mages like Solange and Rihanna are able to use them, as Wortham and Morris go on to describe — not destructively, but generatively, creatively, and yet no less powerfully.
These words are like weapons and like spells. Their power is fed by people’s lives and experiences, again echoing the sources of power in worlds imagined by Jemisin or by Octavia Butler.
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This framework has helped me to understand another word which has been forged more recently. This word is younger, less powerful, but it works in some of the same ways. It’s a word forged in erasure and humiliation. And perhaps it’s a word which we continue to forge through our collective actions and inactions.
The word Borat is one which has been weighing on me more and more over the past year or so, since I heard that Sacha Baron Cohen was reviving it. It’s a word he crafted from the erasure of, and a kind of hatred of, an entire people — the people of Kazakhstan. Cohen chose a place he didn’t have to think about, and from that intentional lack of care, he began to create an instrument of political and social meaning. An instrument whose purposes include some worthwhile ones, but whose power comes from pain, and from dehumanization. How and why do we overlook it?
The two movies SBC created are full of such vile racist scenes and ideas that to describe them would be its own trauma. Is this the raw material he used to distill his own poison — to craft his own weapon? This instrumentalizing of a non-white culture by a white British man reminds me, if at a smaller scale, of the distillation of hate that resulted in the n-word. Most of the hateful things he conjures have nothing to do with Kazakhstan; scenes were shot in Romania, and he speaks Hebrew, not Kazakh. The dehumanization he enacts by depicting Kazakhs as — unashamedly — a primitive nation of rapists and prostitutes — echoes the golden escalator speech by our recent racist-in-chief, overlaid with a sense that the pain he inflicts is actually just a side-effect; the films aren’t even “supposed to” be about Kazakhstan.
What’s certain is that the people of this Central Asian country have been erased before, and worse. Colonized by Russia and then the Soviet Union, who envisioned their homeland as an empty space to explode nukes in or launch rockets from, they have survived the genocide by famine of 40% of their population, forced settlement, and more recently, have suffered under dictatorship. Yet I have to imagine that SBC chose Kazakhstan for some of the same reasons that the creators of Air Force One felt it was appropriate for Gary Oldman to play an Asian character. That they didn’t know any of this history, and they emphatically didn’t care.
All of this echoes painfully in my mind when I hear the word. As much as the b-word is crafted for another purpose, I’ve seen how deeply it cuts when it is spoken in casual conversation when a Kazakh person is present, as I recall while riding in the back of a Lyft two years ago. The silence that followed reminds me of the sick feeling I feel when I see Gene Luen Yang’s character Chin-Kee, an embodiment of racist Yellow Peril iconography, in the book American Born Chinese. I also know the kind of gnawing fear — the racing pulse — which words like that can evoke, as I’ve experienced anti-Asian hate and threats of violence. It’s as if those humiliations, those threats, those very personal attacks upon one’s identity, one’s culture, one’s food or customs or even the shape of one’s face or body — could be bottled up and misted into that Lyft like a sick-making aromatherapy.
Kazakh and other Central Asian people experience anti-Asian violence, hate, and xenophobia today in Russia. To Central Asians in the US, many of whom might easily be “lumped in” with East Asians by ignorant and racist aggressors, anti-Asian hate is a very real threat. And yet we face the prospect of seeing a film which celebrates this specific strain of racist hatred and erasure, honored on the red carpet in the upcoming Academy Awards, and nobody even seems to notice. In the words of a Kazakh person I care about, as we celebrate Minari for telling moving stories of Asian lives, it’s easy to forget that it’s not the only film with an Asian lead character nominated for an Oscar. It’s just the only one played by an Asian actor; the only one which celebrates, rather than denigrates, an Asian people.
The power that SBC tapped into, unknowingly or uncaringly, is not the same depth of power as Wortham and Morris articulate in the n-word. Yet it was fashioned into a weapon to be wielded, and it’s cursed to revisit erasure and hate as it rings in our ears on Oscars night. It continues to grow in ugly strength as long as it is unacknowledged. It cuts in plain sight but nobody sees or acknowledges the wounds. They’re invisibilized as well.
I hope that there is a way to heal them, to practice the more wholesome form of alchemy Wortham and Morris map out; to change the future of this word. To practice a kind of kintsugi. Love doesn’t erase, but it can melt and remold.