The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: Bad Words

Illustration for article titled The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: Bad Words
Photo: Oscar Bustamante (The Root/FMG)

Happy Clapback Day!

From now on, I will only refer to the day between Thursday and Saturday as “Clapback Day.” I’ve done the etymological research and discovered that the day was named after the Greek god of hot grease, Frysomethis.


It’s not that I want to censor or outlaw the old name. But, as a paleo-vegan (I only eat animals that don’t eat meat), I feel that the day should commemorate the day The Root responds to our readers’ emails, tweets and messages.

As such, today’s clapbacks are dedicated to people who get angry at writers at The Root for our choice of words.

Here’s a letter from a reader who took issue with an article on Jussie Smollett. In particular, the woman was incensed by Jay Connor’s use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE):

From: Monica
To: The Root

I am extremely shocked and disturbed by your March 2nd article discussing the two brothers involved in the Smollett saga. The article was riddled with stereotypical vernacular and slang. What is appalling is that your writers made generalised blanket claims which were biased. The first paragraph included a line that the term “What had happened was” is a staple in black households. How offensive, I am black, and no one in my household has ever used that term. The mere fact that your writers believe they have to dumb down their articles and use slang in order to reach a certain demographic of readers is pathetic. I know educated black people may seem anomalous to your writers, but we do exist. I wonder if you dumb down your articles when discussing Jewish individuals ? I know the answer to that question.

You have definitely missed the mark with this article, and this will be posted on social media.

Dear Monica,

Props to you on your use of correct English. I am sorry if you couldn’t understand Jay’s article because you were not educated in Blackanese. In addition, I’m sorry that you consider black people to be stupid. I’m going to pray for you.


The Root is written for and by black people. When Jewish people inject Yiddish phrases into their conversations with each other, are they dumbing it down? How about when white people from Texas like Dwight Eisenhower or George Bush say “Y’all”? Is that dumb, too? When Donald Trump is speaking his unique dialect of gibberish or when British immigrants speak in Cockney accents and phrases, do you view them the same way? Are you arguing that the article was unintelligible?

Nah, I know what this is about. You’re not ashamed of the grammar. You’re ashamed of the blackness.


While there is much dispute about the origins of AAVE, no one argues about the history of racism and linguistic prejudice. The only difference between African American speech and what you obviously believe is the correct way to talk is that, unlike you, some black people are not ashamed of it. Talking and writing in this manner does not mean that we cannot understand the white man’s language. We live in America. We wear the mask.

As educated as you are, I’d like to introduce you to some writers like Mark Twain, who wrote in a Southern dialect; Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote in a regional dialect; or Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz, who infuses his Dominican heritage into his writing. I’ll be sure to tell Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker how dumb they are. In fact, I’ll just send them a quick note that says:

“What had happened was ... A self-hating negro who thinks the white man’s ice is colder wanted to know why you think she’s so stupid.”


You have definitely missed the mark with this email, and this will be posted on social media.

I don’t think this refers to any particular article:

From: Bob
To: Michael Harriot

(Sorry if this isn’t the best address to contact you for this sort of thing, but I don’t use Twitter, FB, etc.)

First, I want to say, without any sarcasm, thank you for helping a white person like me begin to understand the vastness of my own ignorance and my racism. I have particularly found your ideas about being steeped in racism due to growing up in a racist culture to be incredibly valuable. I try to do better. I can’t promise I’ll succeed, but I’ll try.

One of the most immediately enlightening things I learned from reading The Root is the absolute hollowness of the “some of my best friends” excuse. It is horrifying how often it shows up in various forms (“my employees”, “my nieces and nephews”, etc. That’s just from the Cohen hearing last week.). And I’ll admit to having been guilty of the same thing in the past. “I have a black friend”, “My chess mentor is black”, “I’ve played a lot of spades with black people”, etc. And I definitely grew up in a lily white area of the suburbs.

I have a few questions, if you have the time and will please forgive any accidental insult on my part:

1. What’s the singular of “wypipo”? I think it might be Todd, but it also might be Becky. Your opinion?

2. Do you consider the NAACP a worthwhile organization to join for a white person trying to fight racism (or at least trying to minimize the extent to which they might be accidentally making it worse)? I looked into BLM, but there’s nothing close to me (2+ hour drive each way).

3. I know you’ve touched on the topic before, but what’s the best way for white people to help the fight for equality? I try to politely point out instances of racism to friends and family, but unfortunately that tends to turn them off, so I want to help, but the prospect of alienating everyone I know because of their casual ignorance is rather painful to say the least.

And I want to say sorry. I’m not a spokesman for all white people, but we’re full of shit, and we need to acknowledge it, but we don’t. So, sorry.


Dear Bob,

  1. Unlike “white people,” there is no singular form of “wypipo.” It is like “pants” or “scissors.” There is a difference between white people and “wypipo.” For instance, when a lone Caucasian notified the authorities about two black men lounging in Starbucks, the correct way to express that sentiment would be: “Wypipo called the cops.” But 57 percent of white people voted for Trump.
  2. Find out what is important to you and find an organization that specifically addresses those concerns. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund is out there fighting voter suppression, education inequality and racial profiling. So do you consider the NAACP a worthwhile organization?
  3. Imagine if one of your friends or family members had a communicable disease that was curable, but they were keeping secret. If they refused treatment, would you put yourself at risk? Would you point it out to your family members? Would you call them out for spreading their sickness? Because that’s what racism is.

Our article on Amanda Seales garnered a variety of responses but I wanted to address one overwhelmingly common complaint in particular.


Dear all,

A few hours after this article was published, I was informed of some very bad news:

Illustration for article titled The Root’s Clapback Mailbag: Bad Words

After I wept into my tear recycling cup about losing Seales’ support, I reminisced about that time she laughed at something I wrote, then I dried my tears and began the long journey toward this new Amanda-less life. But the fact that she did not refute the argument before blocking us, nor has she addressed her libelous statements is not what I want to discuss.

Nor do I want to dissect the criticism I received about libel versus slander, because legally, if someone publishes audio or video of a defamatory remark, “it is actually considered to be libel because it is published in a transfixed form.” As for me minimizing Seales’ talent, I will not address the people who insist that Amanda Seales’ HBO comedy special was hilarious. You’re on your own.


If you think the article minimizes rape culture, that was not my intent. It was also not an attempt at silencing women. I have often written about the importance of listening to victims but also believe part of that responsibility is being careful with public accusations. We must acknowledge more than one things can be true at one time. It is possible that more people should speak out against sexual violence and that we shouldn’t publicly accuse people of undefined negative acts without proof. However, that is not the subject that I want to address.

I want to offer a sincere apology to the people who read the article about false accusations, celebrity and social media and found one aspect of it totally disgusting. For the rest of my writing career, I will faithfully attempt to get over this mistake and I hope our readers will find a way to overlook the libelous, offhand remark that I made without thinking. I was wrong and I deserve your contempt.


I deserve to be shamed for jumping to conclusions. It doesn’t mean you should cancel me just because I said something stupid. I’m a good person with a good heart. For me to make these baseless accusations without checking the details derailed the entire point. I shouldn’t have said it publicly without the facts and evidence. I hope you can forgive me. But I will face my blunder and proudly admit to the one thing that angered a lot of people:

Venom is not poison.

Frogs are not reptiles.

I have no idea why I began receiving DMs about an old article aimed at white people who say the n-word. Was there a convention or something?


From: Kyle
To: Michael Harriot

I just completed reading your article about whites saying the n word. I’m dissapointed because I would’ve thought by the end of the article you would maybe provide one thing worth reading, but you didn’t. After reading it, however, I feel compelled to tell you, in case no one has before, that you are a blatant racist. You’re a joke. You hate white people with a passion and you should be ashamed of how much hatred is in your heart. If you have any care for your self and dignity, you would delete that piece of shit sorry excuse for an article. But I know you won’t, you’ll stand by your garbage. You’re a very sad man.

From: Led
To: Michael Harriot.


There’s such a thing called free speech. You should learn about it. If whites can’t say the n-word neither can blacks.

From: Mike C.
To: Michael H.

Michael, I read your article “Why It’s OK for Black People, but Not White People, to Use the N-Word, Explained (Again)“ I am caucasian and so is my 7 year old son. Of course some of the logic you use, (pooping in someone else’s house) or (choking someone else’s wife who likes rough sex), helps build context for me to understand it’s your word to use... How do I explain to my 1st grade son, that the dark skinned (could be Hmong, Black or dark skinned Asian) get to use the n-word but he cannot? The concepts of not being able to use someone elses ____ when they can don’t translate well to a young person. Need help as this is going on daily on the bus by one little boy and we’re struggling to how to explain it to our son that he can’t do it but this other little boy gets to shout it out to anyone he wants to.

It’s a “motherfucker” of a word and I wish it could go away or never have existed in the first place, but so is the c_unt word or the b_itch word. And you and I can’t use either of those, unless you are ready for one heck of a lot of woman anger to be thrust down upon you.


Dear Mike, Jesse and Kyle,

I believe my position on the n-word has been misinterpreted.

I absolutely believe white people can say the n-word.

I recognize the fact that it’s hard for you and your ancestors to say it all willy-nilly for 400 years and then erase it like the history of white supremacy is just a shakeable Etch-a-Sketch. I know that only white people are allowed to erase words from the collective vocabulary like how you transformed “slavery” into “states rights,” “racism” into “tradition,” and “Islamophobia” and “homophobia” into “religious freedom.”


Everyone can use the n-word. It is your right.

It is also the right of others to consider you a racist who hates black people when you say it.


Here’s an apt analogy:

In Buddhism, there is a symbol that represents the footsteps of Buddha. That same symbol was also used on ancient Mesopotamian coins, on Navajo clothes, African pottery and in the Sanskrit language. Then someone made it a symbol of hate and ruined it forever.


It is called the swastika.

Buddhists, Navajo people and Indians are free to wear a swastika armband around Jews. But any decent person who is even partially aware of the history behind that symbol wouldn’t wear it around Jewish people. If one chooses to do so knowing the legacy of the Nazi party, it should be assumed that it is an act of antagonism or hate. That assumption is only fair. Now, as far and understanding why black people can use it, here is the important part:

Why do you give a fuck?

The incontrovertible evidence of white supremacy is that white people are constantly roiled by the sheer existence of something that they cannot have for themselves. I now realize that white people infuse their children with this little speck of unexplained superiority and watch it grow.


My children must know that as a black person in America, there are certain things they cannot do. They cannot openly carry a firearm like white men can. They cannot speak to police (or any authority figure) in the same way their white friends do. They cannot linger in convenience stores at night or be alone with a white woman without supervision. They cannot assume that education and hard work alone will get them anything. To achieve anything they must be better than the next white man. Not equal—better.

But white people don’t understand this fact. They don’t languish over the fact that they can’t fly like birds or breathe underwater like a fish. Only white people infested with the virus of white supremacy wonder why they can’t own or rule over everything. They believe everything on the earth should be available to them. And if it is not, they will take it.


Mike, your son should know not to stick a fork in an electrical socket or put his hand on the stove. Did you have to shock or burn him to teach him this? Does he assume he can punch people in the face? Does he urinate in public? Does he know that he can do and say some things to you that he can’t say to strangers? Does he struggle to understand the difference between the women’s and men’s bathroom?


You mean to tell me that you were somehow able to teach your child that there are social and natural boundaries that are off limits to them? That there are things they shouldn’t do because it will reflect negatively upon them? That there are rules and norms?


How the fuck did you do that?

Do you think you could do it again?


A real nigga.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.


Not Enough Day Drinking

If whites can’t say the n-word neither can blacks.

It’s really not that fucking complicated. I can go to the convenience store wearing nothing but a thong, but I can’t expect to not get judged for it. So go ahead and say the n-word everywhere you go, just don’t be surprised when your life gets difficult. After all, you’re not the only one with freedom of speech.