Rashida Tlaib, the Hypocritical Cuss Word Controversy, and the Myth of Political Civility

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) poses for photographs with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and her family in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) poses for photographs with Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and her family in the Rayburn Room at the U.S. Capitol January 3, 2019, in Washington, DC.
Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As a young boy growing up in Detroit during the 1980s, I remember the late Coleman A. Young, the city’s first black mayor, cussing people out—usually news reporters. If you grew up in Detroit then or in the early 1990s, one of your favorite pastimes was joking about Coleman—we called him by his first name—telling reporters where to shove their microphones or what part of his ass to kiss.

His favorite cuss word? Mothafucka.

(Notice I say, mothafucka, not motherfucker, because that’s too proper and most black folk don’t say it that way.)


After he won his 1973 campaign for mayor, he kept a placard on his desk that read: M.F.I.C: Mothafucka In Charge, according to Lee Devito of the Detroit Metro Times who wrote his own insightful column on Detroiters’ affection for the word Mothafucka.

During a business trip to Hawaii one year, Coleman’s greeting to the local reporters who followed him: “Aloha, mothafuckas.”

A lot of us thought the local media were racist and only trying to dig up dirt on our mayor, so we delighted in his mothafucka-laced verbal lashings. He represented the essence of our spirit, our success and our pain. Cussing was, and still is, part of black Detroit colloquialism.

Detroiters aren’t quaint, delicate people with sensitive ears. We’re tough, rugged, and despite the gentrification in midtown and downtown, Detroit is an 80 percent black city dogged by years of anti-blackness, decades of housing discrimination, and all-out resentment for daring to be the black and proud city Young encouraged us to be.


So when Rep. Rashida Tlaib referred to Donald Trump as a mothafucka, she spoke our language. We’re used to mothafuckas like him on the local and state level. (Look no further than racist L. Brooks Patterson, county executive in Oakland County.) That’s why I really don’t get people’s concern over the use of the word. It is not profane; it defines the profane. Mothafucka can connote many expressions, but the way Tlaib used it is how Detroiters like Mayor Young and the rest of us use it, to describe someone who isn’t worth a shit and who, well, fucks us.

Trump is fucking America because he is racist, immoral, dumb and unfit for any public office. And we’re tired of it. If Trump doesn’t make you cuss, you really aren’t suffering under his God-forsaken administration. And if you are from the Detroit where nearly 35 percent of Detroit’s population is living below the poverty line and the decline of the automotive industry has hit black people disproportionately hard, maybe you are part of the Detroit on the uptick that’s leaving its black residents behind.


Mitch Albom, a white Detroit Free Press columnist who cannot possibly grasp the brutal force of the historical racism black Detroiters face, does not speak for most of its black residents when he wrote an anal column deriding Tlaib for saying mothafucka, a word as commonly heard in the city’s streets as our local greeting to each other, “What up, doe?”

Nor does New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait represent the voice of the angry, hurt people of Middle Eastern descent in metro Detroit—who make up one of the highest concentrations of people of Middle Eastern descent outside of the Middle East and who have to endure one anti-Muslim insult after another from the White House— when he says that her language undermines her argument for impeaching Trump.


Naw, son. Mothafucka doesn’t undermine her point. It punctuates it.

Hurt people cuss. When Tlaib called that mothafucka in the White House what he is, we felt her. She feels our pain. She ain’t go to Washington to play nice and be fake. We ain’t in the mood to play nice with our oppressors. Coleman A. Young didn’t do it. (He famously called Ronald Reagan “prune face” when he ran for president and “President Prune Face” after he won.) And he taught us to never accept disrespect, either. (Do you watch how native Detroiter Judge Greg Mathis checks people on his show?)


If you ain’t ready for the truth, don’t ask a mothafuckin’ Detroiter, be she a janitor shooting the shit in Belle Isle Park or a congresswoman in Washington, D.C.

Even as the media has focused more time on Tlaib saying mothafucka than Republican Congressman Rep. Steve King’s endorsement of white supremacy, the freshman congresswoman from Detroit has yet to cave in to the politically-correct media. And she shouldn’t. She knows calls for civility in our political discourse are bullshit.


Only privileged white people with press passes and absolutely nothing to lose can devote their time crying into their closed-off, white-dominated circles while the rest of us are out here fighting for our lives against a white supremacist president who has shut down the government because he can’t get his racist ass wall on the Mexican border.

American politics have rarely been civil to people of color or the Metro Detroiters Tlaib represents. Certainly the many white male and female elected officials who have used their power to strip black people of their voting rights across America, prayed on our poverty, created laws to criminalize our every behavior, and used religion to justify their racism are far from civilized—including the white moderates who stand by and say nothing about it and media who think we’re supposed to stand by and be polite while it happens.


Fuck them and their calls for civility.

What makes Tlaib’s mothafucka moment so profound is that she doesn’t give a fuck what you feel about her saying it. Because the people who are bitching and moaning really don’t give a fuck about the diverse people in her district, or the struggling communities they live in.


So, let’s do ourselves a favor, white media: Stop calling for civil language.

There is nothing civil about this presidency or the white supremacy that is waging an unrelenting campaign of economic, political and social destruction on the most vulnerable people in this country. Mothafucka isn’t a marker of disrespect for the man in the White House carrying out this oppression; it’s a proper noun.


It’s high time the white media corrects itself and recognizes the Detroit congresswoman’s truly proper grammar.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

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Rooo sez BISH PLZ

So, let’s do ourselves a favor, white media: Stop calling for civil language.

I also don’t see Mr. Chait excoriating this woman using literal eliminationist speech for *her* “language”

Oh - but that’s right. He doesn’t feel like he can police her speech because she’s not a woman of color.

He can have all the seats.