It’s been nearly a week since Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted the infamous words she surely wishes everyone would forget.
While in Paris last weekend hanging out with her friends Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the Oscar-winning actress was having such a grand time at that she decided it was perfectly fine to tweet “N**gas in paris for real.” The phrase refers to the song “N---as in Paris,” a track off of Watch the Throne, the album from Jay-Z and Kanye West that the pair was promoting at a concert that night.
Within minutes, the criticism—or as one blogger noted, “the civil rights commission”—came out in droves to protest all things Paltrow. Angered by what they deemed an insensitive and offensive comment, many blasted the A-list actress for a lack of sensitivity to a word with such a long and painful history in the black community.
Producer The Dream even tried to take the blame, claiming that he had used Paltrow’s phone to tweet the controversial message. (He later backtracked, admitting that he was only trying to shield his friend.) Others, like rap mogul Russell Simmons and writer Touré, rushed to defend the 39-year-old actress with the same defense Paltrow half-heartedly used herself to quiet the growing objections: “Ni--as in Paris” is the name of the song, after all, and she was only echoing the words of her two good buddies, who also happen to be two of the most popular African-American rappers on the planet. Nothing seems to trump the old “if you can say it, so can I’’ defense.
It’s an obvious—and particularly convenient—defense. Was it enough, though? Not for many, including former Tribe Called Quest frontman Q-Tip. “Tip,” whose credibility remains rightfully unchallenged in the halls of rap, deftly put into words on his Twitter account what many of the so-called gatekeepers of hip-hop seemed to have missed.
In a series of messages written on June 6, Tip wrote: “listen rush simmons, toure, and all Black Folk who are sympathist to this gwen paltrow n**ga thing. She may have not meant harm, sure it was in the heat of the moment but the fact that she showed not 1 IOTA of an apologetic tone, given the historical weight of that word is not responsible of G Paltrow’s part.”
Q-Tip’s message rang true to many people like myself who’ve always been slightly annoyed by Paltrow’s nonstop flaunting of her black famous pals. Over the last few years Paltrow has named dropped Jay-Z and Beyoncé in nearly every article she has been interviewed for. Her gleeful discussion of the high-profile couple reeks of desperation—a high school–like attempt by the actress to appear cool and in the “in crowd.”
In one particular instance, she told a reporter for a European magazine that the only rap music that played in her house was that of Jay-Z, because Will Smith was “whack.” Though it may have only been a joke, there was also a certain level of arrogance hidden inside her remark. Growing up, Paltrow lived a rather privileged life as the daughter of award-winning actress Blythe Danner and the late Bruce Paltrow, a Hollywood mega-producer. Her world of prep schools, boarding schools, and constant world travel was thousands of miles away from the street life and culture that produced rap music—or from most black people in general, which made her offhand observation of Smith’s musical career even more unnerving. Smith’s music provided a greatly needed comic relief to the sometimes bleak and all-too-real imagery of rap music. It was greatly appreciated, both then and now. That nuance is something Paltrow apparently understands little about, given her cozy perch from the Upper East Side of New York, or London, or Paris, or wherever she happens to be.
That cozy perch is what also made her totally oblivious to the maelstrom of controversy that predictably arose as the result of her careless tweet. Unfortunately, it’s that perch—and a sense of entitlement—that also makes her so unwilling to apologize. So far, Paltrow’s only statement on the matter has been a follow-up tweet that said, “Hold up. It’s the title of the song!”
No matter what her famous black friends tell her, Paltrow should be well-versed enough in life—and I suspect she is—to understand the power and pain that words can cause when used carelessly. As Q-Tip so eloquently said on Twitter, “Paltrow shld have offered a ‘if I offended anyone im truly sorry’ as a person who loves black people and understands there’s a scope of black folk that exist beyond the ones she partied with in paris who are still dealing w the complexities of their circumstances.”
Exactly. Racism still exists in America, and the N word remains a horrible reminder to many who don’t rap of how racial injustice continues to wreak havoc on the lives of many people of color. Paltrow’s access to black people appears to be limited to the very rich and famous. Those impacted by racism, to be sure, but not always in direct or even obvious ways because of their elevated status in society. If Paltrow really wants to “be down” or “seem cool” to the masses, maybe she should move beyond the “N**gas in Paris” she’s so close with and meet others of color not so fortunate to live a life filled with record deals, private planes, and parties in the most beautiful cities in the world. Maybe she should spend time in Sanford, Fla., where a young black teenager like Travyon Martin can be stopped and shot to death because he looked suspicious. Or she can travel to Milwaukee, where 13-year-old Darius Simmons was just shot and killed last week by his 75-year-old white neighbor who accused him of stealing. Evidence indicates Simmons was in school during the robbery his neighbor accused him of.
Maybe if Paltrow spends time in that world, she’ll finally understand why her tweet upset so many. Maybe if she expands the pool of black people in her life, she’ll get the free pass to use whatever offensive term she likes without consequences. She clearly already feels she deserves it.