Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The ‘N Word’

Six letters, one word. That’s all it is. But, it could be argued, never has any other word in human history been steeped in so much hatred, cruelty, debasement, pain or darkness. For one people it reflects a time in history when they were less than human, valued as only half a human. The word, to this day, is so often used to remind them of that time and that unenviable that they were forced into. For another people, it reflects a time when they reached, as a race, the lowest point of their collective history. For all the wars and genocides they have been involved in, nothing should embarrass and shame the white man today like his involvement in the slave trade.

The word was born out of that horror of a time, when over a hundred million people were kidnapped from their homes and put to work to serve owners. That word to this day is, arguably, the most poisonous word in the English language. That word is ‘nigger’.

The writing of this piece is not intended to be a critique of modern day racism, or of the past history of slavery. It is this writer’s opinion, that every human is entitled to their opinion, racist or not. I will also say that while white people should be aware of the slippery slope that led to the global slave trade, just as they should be aware of the slippery slope that led to the Holocaust, no white man or woman alive today should have to apologise or feel any guilt for what happened in those dark days. No one alive today was around for it, no one alive today was involved in it, and no one alive today owes any debt of apology to anyone for it. Just as the children of Nazis are not responsible for their parents mistakes, the children of slave owners are not responsible for the mistakes their parents/grandparents/great, great, great grandparents made either.

What the writing of this piece is intended to be, is a look at a very common occurrence that sweeps throughout western society today, and that is the use of the word ‘nigger’. My points here should be transferred to any other word of bigotry used to demean a minority, but the N word is by far the most poisonous of any such term out there, and is thus ripe for discussion.

A huge problem that a lot white people seem to have with the word is that they are aware that a significant proportion of the black community use the term frequently and without care for its poisonous meaning or history. A frequently used argument, one that often comes from a perspective of incredulity and misguided ‘reverse racism’ (yes it does exist, but not in this case), is that ‘If black people can use it, why can’t we?’ Or, upon understanding that a lot of black people – right or wrong – say they use the word as a way of reclaiming it and dealing with the brutality of that part of their (even very recent) history, as a way of taking the pain out of the word, white people will say that then they should accept that everyone can thus use it, so that all pain is taken out of it by everyone.

These arguments, sometimes, come from a place of good meaning, but from a fundamental misunderstanding. For a lot of black people around the world, hearing a white mouth say the word ‘nigger’ is a painful experience. Aside from the Jewish people, there is probably no other group of human beings in the world that can understand what it would be like to hear such a term spoken from the mouth of the ancestors that enslaved you. In America, only forty years ago, that term was still frighteningly common, many of the users of which are still alive today. No white man could ever understand that pain, and trying to equate a word like ‘cracker’ or ‘honkey’ is just ignorant. We (by which I mean the vast, vast majority of white people) have never had to deal with real discrimination based on our race or skin colour. We do not understand. But we have an obligation, if we want to get anywhere as a united species, to try to do so.

Now, one can make the argument, for very good reason, that if the N word is so toxic, then black people should not be using it themselves. It was a word used to debase, dehumanise and destroy an entire race of our fellow humans, and black people, just like white, yellow, red or brown people, should not be using the word either. There is a very strong and valid case for this, but one that will essentially and always be trumped by the importance of free speech, and that, in a civilised society, no word, however ugly, should be outlawed, and other person has the right to tell another that they cannot use such a term. (They can say they should not, but not cannot). My personal perspective on this is very strong, for I believe that any words and all words can and should be spoken freely. Will there be consequences? In cases such as the casual tossing around of the N word, then yes. And the speaker must be prepared to face them and answer to those that question them. If you want to use such a term, you’d better have a good reason for doing so. However, we should never forget that these terms that we have loaded with such ammunition are, at the end of the day, just words. We do not get outraged when Richard Pryor referred to black people as ‘niggers’. There’s a two part reason for this; the first is that he is black. Richard Pryor, using the definition, was a ‘nigger’ himself, and we know and understand that he is not being racist in his use of the term. The second part is that, so often, the problem with the use of the word is not, necessarily, the word itself. It is, after all, just a word; a collection of sounds that we associate meaning with. No, the problem is not with the use of the word, but with the context in which it is used. So often it is used in a derogatory manner, so often it betrays the truth that there are more racists out there than people – of every race – would like to admit. So often it angers people because it demonstrates a common ignorance for where such a word came from and what it was created to describe. So often it may anger people because the use of the word demonstrates a lack of care for what they (their race that is) have been through and overcome to get to this still unequal point which they are at today.

But the question, knowing all of this, must be asked: Why would anyone want to use a word so steeped in hatred? White people can complain that they are always seen as racist if they use the word (they’re not (remember; context)) and that it’s not fair that black people can use it and not get the same heat. It should be asked of those complaining people then, why do you want to use that word? What is the need to use it? I am not questioning anyone’s motives or saying that they should or should not use the N word or any other such term; it is a free country and you are free to do so. I am asking the question, however, of why you would want to use such a term?

I used to use it. I did not use it in a derogatory manner, or in a spiteful way. Did I, use it as a punchline in many a joke? Yes. Just as I also used gay people as punchlines in many another. If I find it funny, I find it funny, and I will not apologise for it. But I have thought, been educated about, and analysed my use of that term and many others, and in doing so, I came to understand many of the above points that I made. While I am not saying that I will never use a bigoted term again, far from it, as I believe that no word should ever be made taboo, I understand the importance and power of such terms, and am far more mindful of what it is that I am actually saying, why it is I am saying it and whom I am saying it to.

I believe it is important to think about these points and consider why it is one may choose to use such words. I think it is important to ask oneself why one would desire to use them. I think it is important to truly look at all perspectives of the issue, to consider why some people may hate it and others may have no problem with it, and figure out – for yourself – if you are comfortable with saying words so steeped in bigotry. Do not be so arrogant just to say, as I used to, ‘It is my right to use it just as I can use any other word, and it’s other people’s problems if they don’t like it’ because your arrogance blinds you to the truth of what you are saying. Just as I loathe people that hardly or don’t even know me being shocked that I’m a homosexual because I don’t act like Alan Carr, just as I loathe certain homophobic terms and not others, I have come to understand that there are others in the same position who may loathe some racist terms, may loathe none of them, or may loathe all of them. And it is they that have the right to be outraged about the use such terms, not the speaker, who so often may think they are hard done to if they are chided (at best) for their use of it. All I ask is that you just think about what it is you are saying and what your reasons are for doing so, before you actually go ahead and say it.

‘I said, ‘I ain’t never gonna call another black man ‘nigger’. Y’know because we never was no niggers! That’s a word that’s used to describe our own wretchedness, and we perpetuate it now ‘cause it’s dead; that word is dead. We’re men and women. We come from… We come from the first people on the earth! You know? The first people on the earth were black people. (…) So black people, we’re the first people on the earth to have thought! We was the first ones to say ‘Where the fuck am I? And how do you get to Detroit?’ So you can take it for what it’s worth, I ain’t trying to preach to nobody, I’m just talking about my feelings about it. And I don’t want them hip white people coming to me and calling me no nigger or telling me nigger jokes. I don’t like it. I’m just telling you, it’s uncomfortable to me. I don’t like it when black people say it to me. I really don’t no more. It’s nothing. It don’t mean nothing. So I love y’all, and you take that with you.’
Richard Pryor

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