“What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I’m talking about you. I’m describing me.”

James Baldwin

This past week, Chet Hanks, aspiring MC and the son of actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, has been in the spotlight for his habitual and unwavering usage of the n-word on his instagram posts. It began with him calling a black friend of his, “my nigga” on one photo. Chet then responded to the public outcry over of his use of the term by calling his various critics “hating ass niggaz,” only to conclude with sanctimonious indignation, codifying public disapproval as an infringement on his right to express himself. In a final caption to his account, which is now closed, Chet wrote:

“If I say the word nigga I say it amongst people I love and who love me. If I say ‘fuck yall hatin ass niggaz’ it’s because that’s really how I felt at the time. And I don’t accept society getting to decide what ANYBODY can or can’t say. That’s something we call FREE SPEECH.”

Chet paints himself a victim, an almost-martyr, a survivor of an ignorant public all-too-willing to concede their constitutionally protected liberties for the sake of “hatin’.”

But is that what has been done? Chet’s defensive stance, on the one hand, is built on the classic misappropriation of AAVE. If he had and respected the necessary cultural context clues, he’d know that “hatin’” is inappropriate. Constructive criticism is not the same as “hatin’.” No one was trying to steal his shine. And based on the fact that most articles referred to him first as his father’s son, before hearing anything about his “budding” music career, it seems his shine is not one he can claim on his own. Even that statement is not “hate,” but rather “shade.” To hate on someone is to tear them down because you desire what he has. All he has is the word “nigger,” and, despite whatever Chet thinks, the commentary around his deployment of the term has had nothing to do with coveting his cherished possession.

For many of us there is nothing to want. We don’t need the word. We have the experience.

So if the critiques are not being levied based on the desire to say nigger, wherein lies the problem? For what has Chet actually taken offense? How did advising Chet not to say nigger become a radical infringement on his right to free speech? No governmental entity, from the local, state, to the national level, issued Chet a gag order on the word. This was a confrontation amongst peers, or, at the very least, fellow Instagram users. And even as he was flooded with followers and non-followers demanding he refrain from using the term, his freedom to choose to express it was never taken away. To this day, he still has it.

He has always had it.

What he no longer has is the radical freedom to say nigger without accountability.

He can no longer have the word without the experience.

Here Chet shows himself how much he depends on that difference. He’ll act as if saying “my nigga” about his friend didn’t sound like an auction block receipt, just as some people would like to rewrite the historical relationships between white masters and enslaved African women as “love.” He’ll act like hip-hop has never been about race, like the genre’s genealogy started with Iggy Azalea and not Bronx block parties with black and brown boys and girls. He’ll erase the word’s origins, like words have weight without context, a grammatical and socio-cultural impossibility.

This was never a crisis of rights, let alone freedom. This was a white man bearing the burden of his whiteness, an ethical dilemma he was never meant to bear, definitely not in public. For this he mourns, embarrassed with a bruised ego. The public held a mirror up to him, and he had to ask himself, “Can I be white without the word?”

He gave himself the answer, and, yelled in all caps, “FREE SPEECH” because, I’m sure, it scared him.

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