- August 12th, 2002
- Write comment
In the English language, there are very few words that people universally believe are controversial. Yes, there are curse words, but even today those words are used in a much more relaxed context than they used to be. There are various insults and slanderous comments, but those really don’t have much to do with the words themselves; it’s more about how they’re used, and what sentiment there is behind the words themselves. But racial slurs are almost universally accepted as horrible words because of the meaning they hold behind them, the history that they have had, and the fact that there is almost no way to treat them as normal words.
There is one word, however, that rises above the rest. One word, above all, can be seen as the worst word that can be said. And the worst thing about it is that it’s almost universally believed to be wrong only on one side of the racial line: the white side.
Say it with me, folks: “nigger.”
According to the Merriam-Webster Online Collegiate Dictionary, “nigger” has a long and famous history, and has been used in its most classic form in works of literature by the great Mark Twain and incomparable Charles Dickens, and while it is a word that has long been associated with bigotry and racism, it no longer remains so, or at least not in Black America.
But why has this bastardization of the word “Negro” become such a powerfully-used word? Why has it managed to take the hearts of so many people in the world? Why is it that a word that is so viewed as being wrong considered acceptableeven a proud wordin certain racial circles?
The answers to such questions, unfortunately, may never truly be answered. One thing is for sure, and that is that if the word was never uttered again, by any tongueblack or whiteit would not be missed, not one bit. Many people argue that, regardless of its history, it needs to be removed from our mouths and our thoughtsforever.
How should nigger be defined? Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook? Am I wrongfully offending the sensibilities of readers right now by spelling out nigger instead of using a euphemism such as N-word? Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view nigger as a provocation that reduces the culpability of a person who responds to it violently? Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be ousted from his or her job for saying “nigger”? What methods are useful for depriving nigger of destructiveness? . . . To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.
Randall Kennedy, in an excerpt of the opening paragraph of his book Nigger, Chapter One
Should it be? The answer to that question is much more difficult to obtain, and even harder to rationalize.
The word “nigger” has long been a word used to belittle and oppress people of color. It has a nasty historythough its original use was not, as many people, a derogatory termand many people would prefer to see it remaining as history and nothing more. I might be inclined to agree with them, if it weren’t for the alternate meanings the word has picked up in the last few decades.
While it is true that “nigger” is now and will always be a term associated with a long history of bigotry and racism, it is being taken back. Blacks today use the word with affection, even power, and feel that the word is something that belongs to them and will forever remain theirs. It has been used by activists in the Negro movement to help foster brotherhood and to help remove some of the sting of hatred that has accompanied the word throughout its history. It has been and is now used as a term of endearment for other black people (mainly by men, though not entirely), but in today’s context is often spelled differentlyby using “nigga” instead of “nigger.” Many black people are fine with the usage of this word, and indeed use it frequently. But one thing about even this usage remains constant: it is a racially-stratified word.
It used to be that whites used it to refer to blacks. Now it seems that blacks use it to refer to blacks, and that is okay to them. But for a white person to use the term, even in affection or endearment, is wrong, at least in the eyes of most black people.
A recent episode of the Fox television drama “Boston Public” addressed this very topic-in fact, it was what spurred me to write this piece-and asked many of the same questions that I bring up here. But one of the main underlying themes of the show is that it was inappropriate for a high school teachera white high school teacher at thatto be educating his students about the usage of such a word. Faculty felt that the teacher was overstepping his bounds in talking to his students about it, and the principala black manthreatened to fire this teacher over his unwillingness to give the topic up because it was something with which his students were all interested.
The overwhelming sentiment regarding the word in the classroom was that it was okay for blacks to use it but not whites, but little was cited as a reason for this opinion. The best the students could come up with is that regardless of how a white person acted toward blacks, it was always going to be viewed as a negative word and as a slur-despite the fact that they felt that Chris Rock’s usage of the word was actually quite funny, they felt that had he been white and using it, it would have been inappropriate.
One of the strongest moments in the episode was brought in by the teacher, who had found a book written by Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, appropriately titled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. This man, a black man, has worked hard to dispel misunderstandings over the word and its history, and addresses many different facets of it. I have not been able to obtain a copy of this book as of this writing, but you can be assured that when I do get to read it I will be writing a follow-up.
It gave the students a means to combat their teacher’s questions with ideas they could work with, such as how the word came into being, and how the word was used in modern times to take away the hurt it had caused from use out of white mouths. It made me see thatdespite the fact that it is still a dirty word to meit can be used with affection and understood.
However, being a person of mixed black/white heritage myself, I can’t allow myself to believe that such a word will ever come into positive light. It is a word that I have seen cause much hatred, and for that I will never reconcile myself to it. It is a word that continually reminds me of the history of my ancestors, and is a word reminding me that despite the minimal amount of Negro blood running through my veins, if I had been born two hundred years ago, I would be a slave because of such a word and the people who used it. It is a word that was used against my mother when she started dating my father, a white man. It is a word that will never be right with me, and I feel it is a slur regardless of whom it is used by or how it is meant.
Why can’t we find a new word to enshrine brotherhood in it? Isn’t there something that can be created that has nothing but positivity to it? We as humans have the potential for so much, and yet we find ways to create differences in ourselves that aren’t really there. What a shame.
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington, August 28, 1963