Wednesday, April 04, 2007

N’Word, Please!

A coworker asked me today how I felt about the use of the n’word. The conversation was inspired by an article in Ebony magazine that promised at the end of the piece, the n’word would receive its long overdue burial at Ebony and Jet magazines without fanfare or ceremony.

Based on the opinions of my coworker who I consider to be quite intelligent, the word has seeded a shifting landscape plowed and tilled primarily by African Americans. Her question is this: ‘why, if the word evokes such negative connotations and represents such a painful period in our history, do so many of us use it without compunction and often as a term of endearment even, then lose our minds when someone else not of African American descent uses it?’ Of course, the question these days has all but had the bite taken out of it. But for a waning population of those who lived through ‘it’ it still bears fangs that drip the blood of our forefathers and of those whose shoulders we now stand on. For them, the word picks at sores not quite scabbed over in our own culture and in American society at large the sores will be raw in perpetuity.

Some of our own brothers and sisters, rappers, comedians and other entertainers have desensitized themselves to the word. Society views this self-desensitization as a license to use a word commonized by the very people it was designed to denigrate and has been filed into the book of socially accepted vernacular. Of course the n’word is protected under the 1st Amendment as a right of free speech and will always be a part of the American experience, however bad. But who’s free to use it? Just us? White kids desperate to prove their street cred? The Klan? Michael Richards? A white coworker in his or her bliss ignorance trying to fit in at the water cooler? For those who feel it’s not ok, who has the authority to revoke the license? Should it be considered a congruous term in the lexicon of modern American language, or is this the carriage pulling the horse?

We fall on the floor laughing when we are in the comfort of our circle of friends and talk about the stupid n’word that acted a fool at the doctor’s office/drugstore/grocery store/McDonald’s. Our entertainers stand before audiences the world over rapping or singing about n’words, our brothers use it as a greeting for their closest of friends ‘hey n’guh, my n’guh. But, the moment someone who is not African American utters the word, we’re forming torch bearing mobs running for the nearest lynching tree. WTF? WE opened Pandora’s box, the n’word has escaped and it cannot be reclaimed.

I have to admit, I see my coworker’s point to a degree. Though, in my opinion, it’s not that simple, not so black and white so in part of my friend’s justification of why this question is moot, I’ll have to agree to disagree. In my own humble opinion, there are n’words or as my husband calls them n’double gars. African American ones, White ones, Arab ones, Jewish ones, Hispanic ones, and maybe even some Hindu ones. Anyone who can kill without conscience, those who lay in wait and watch hard working men and women leave their homes to go to work only to clean out the contents of their house once they turn the corner , those who entice our babies with the drug du jour, those who snatch children off the street and pimp them. Do I need to continue? For those I can reserve the use of the word without apology.
Would it rub my skin raw if someone outside the African American society used the n’word as a characterization of these, the lowest type of degenerates? Yes, probably. Its paradoxical, I know, and would take a volume to explain why I feel the way I do, but this is my truth as contradictory as it is and it is so for others, too. At the end of the day, it’s my opinion, protected by the Constitution. She doesn’t necessarily agree, and that’s ok, that’s her right.

So, let me ask you, has the use of the n’word had the sting taken out of it and has become innocuous and non-threatening when used by someone outside of your culture?


lilsoulja said...

Your last question seems easiest to answer: no, it definitely retains the sting when used by someone outside my culture. In the beginning and up to this point, I have held the feeling that the word (and "hybrids" as you pointed out in your comment--thanks) was intended for use towards black folk. In my opinion a problem is that people were given the false impression that the word would be taken out of the English vocabulary in totality. There were many people who did not share in efforts to do this and continued referring to themselves and others with this word. Further still, we inherited and maintained the hatred associated with the word so much so that we are ready to harm an individual outside our race that uses it.

It is very ignorant and probably dishonorable to say this, but I believe that more power was given to the n'word when people pushed for its demise. Saying, "Don't call us niggers" to a riotous racist lot should do what exactly? The same thing it does to unruly (and probably/possibly less-concerned) individuals. Make em use the word more. Please do not read it as a justification, just a slight read on history. Some of us (myself included) process the n'word with no concern just as society processed "crackheads" in the 90's, yet we know that the crack epidimic and its victims are far from a light matter.

I made one observation for myself that I KNOW my mom and others up would disagree with. That is this: I AM a product of my ancestors. Painful truth for me is that a part of my ancestors were slaves and a percentage of them were referred to as niggers. I hold fast to my African-American heritage. Though it is not to be used as a badge of pride, recognizing myself under that title joins me with all others sharing my black skin from the highest to the low.

We tend to target those who do things that directly harm other people, but that is not where the term began. That is only a means to separate people amongst themselves.

***tried again and it works***

Double Martini said...

You are right, there was a time when people were campaigning to strike the word from the dictionary, thus removing it from modern American language. Resistance was encouraged by political conservatives, linguistic purists, traditionalists and people ignorant of everything except that the word was a very effective weapon against a race of people they hated. Though this gesture would not have caused the word to vanish completely from everyday language, it would have been a very small step toward choking off the lifeblood of such a divisive word. And a small step forward is better than a smaller one backward.
New York has passed a resolution to ban the word. While it is unrealistic to expect this will bear any fruit since you cannot legislate how a person feels, the sentiment is not lost on most of us.
Regarding your opinion of giving power to the n’word, on the contrary, I think it’s a very interesting viewpoint. You can parallel it to telling a child ‘not to do that’, which makes the incorrect behavior more provocative and almost irresistible. I see your point.
The word drags so much negativity, divisiveness, violence and hatred in its wake that it is impossible to dress it up, comb its hair and expect it to sit nicely in the corner. But some of us have decided to do just that. In a misguided effort to diffuse it, we’ve decided to use it against ourselves before it is used against us. This type of useless self-flagellation only serves to continue to frustrate a third of us, confuse a third of us and the last group really doesn’t give a crap. The ugliness of its legacy is reincarnated every time it is used in whatever the context. We don’t live in a perfect society and there will always be people who depend on the very divisiveness that the n’word creates for more reasons than I care to count.