That’s right, I said it. Nigger. I said it in a purely linguistic context, free of any mention of any people. Most people seem unwilling to do that. And I think it’s a damn shame.
When talking about the word nigger, most people call it The N-Word. This is true even in academic environments. For example, a friend of mine had to fill out a worksheet for her college-level English class. One of the items on the worksheet required her to write down all the taboo words she could think of. When she asked for my help with it, the first two words I thought of were nigger and cunt. She wrote down cunt without a second thought, but was totally unwilling to write nigger on her homework. It wasn’t until my boss suggested The N-Word as an alternate way to write it down that she added it to her list, even though it was perhaps the best example she could have put on her homework.
What does that say about the word, about how we think of it, about us? Can we not even engage in a mature discussion about the nature of the word nigger without resorting to nicknames for it? That’s like having a discussion among adults about the medical properties of a man’s wee-wee because you don’t want to use the word penis. That would be looked down upon as a sign of immaturity, yet somehow using the word nigger in any context is considered a mark of ignorance, vulgarity, and/or a lack of respect for other cultures.
And heaven forbid you should use the word nigger in a joke. Or in any kind of joking fashion. Even on the Internet, where no one really has any clue what the ethnicity of the people they’re interacting with are. Once I greeted a guy in my World of Warcraft guild with a random “Wassup, mah nigga?” and a different guy immediately started trying to chew me a new butthole. “If you knew even one black person,” he typed, “you would never use that word even as a joke.” Even if my own ethnicity and pool of friends didn’t make that statement fallacious, it’s an empty statement.
Let’s explore how. I’ll start by summing up the connotations associated with the various terms for people of dark skin tone in America at the moment (assuming the speaker is not black):
- That guy over there is African-American.
- My friend is black.
- The nigger stole my bike.
Science has seen many studies on how the human brain categorizes parts of their environments, including other people. It’s been found that people have a tendency to retain examples which support their strongly-held preconceived notions of the world, and forget examples which contradict that. A person who has been brought up to believe that all black people are good-for-nothing niggers isn’t likely to change that opinion because he befriends a black guy. More likely, he’ll belive his one black friend to be a remarkable exception. The word nigger would then still be free rein for jokes, insults, and what have you.
(Edit in 2013: I recently found out that the parents of one of my dearest friends in the world has racist parents who got mad at her when they found out she had befriended me — without even seeing my father, my own skin tone was dark enough to set her mother off as soon as I was gone and the burden of hospitality was lifted. Thankfully, her parents didn’t try to stop her from seeing me, and they came to respect both myself and my father. But my friend tells me they’re still as racist as ever towards other black people.)
Furthermore, it’s socially A-OK for black people to call each other niggers. It’s only when a non-black person throws the word out that people start prickling like porcupines (as the movie Rush Hour did a fantastic job of illustrating).
The more I pay attention to people’s attitudes toward, uses of, and avoidance of the word nigger, the more the subject disturbs me. The word has been placed on a pedestal of sorts, always hanging over us. It’s in reach, but to reach towards it is one of the most heinous things one can do. It has been made an icon of oppression, of the violation of human rights, and of a history noone is willing to let go of. It’s a very powerful word.
Now, I hesitate to quote children’s fiction when voicing a serious concern, but I think Dumbledore was right when he told Harry Potter that fear of the name of a thing increases fear of the thing itself. After all, removing something from a group of its own kind and deliberately setting it aside makes it all the more noticeable. And draping something in mystique only makes people want to examine it more closely.
In short, if society is to be free of the influence of the word nigger, we need to be free to discuss that influence, to laugh at it. To examine it from all angles in a mature, thoughtful way. We cannot do that if it’s impossible to voice or type it.
I’d like to wrap this post up with a side note: I created a placeholder draft of this post some days ago, with just the title and the first couple of sentences filled in so I wouldn’t forget to write it later, when I had time. When I got back to it today, to fill out the rest of it, the post did not have a title. This isn’t the first time I’ve created a draft and come back to it later to discover that it had no title, but the other time that happened I couldn’t be sure that I’d actually filled in the title in the first place. This time I know I did, because it leads into the first sentence of the blog post. Did WordPress.com delete the title, either by human hand or via a bot? I dunno. Could be a fluke. But given how oversensitive people are to the word “nigger” it wouldn’t surprise me if they did do it on purpose.