The Word “Nigger”

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.

Black vs. African-American

I am 3/8 black, 1/8 Hispanic, 4/8 Caucasian, and 0/8 African-American.

How can you be 3/8 black and 0/8 African-American?

I’ve heard that question lots of times. The answer is that my father is an immigrant — and not from Africa, which would make me African-American in a different sense, like President Obama. My father is Jamaican. I’m sure that if you went back far enough you’d find a place where my dad’s family history intersects with African-American history. Since we’re descended from the Moors of Spain, I don’t have a clue where that intersection point is. But that intersection point is nowhere near today.

African-American history is amazing. The black people living in the United States have, as a race, overcome many obstacles throughout the course of their history. They’ve developed a rich subculture, with its own music, styles of dress, and linguistics. African-American culture is part of the greater American culture, yet distinct from it.

My dad was mostly raised in New York City. He’s basically a white guy encased in black flesh. Between him and my 100% white mother, my culture is very white American. I have too much respect for African-American history and culture to claim to be African-American just because it’s politically incorrect to call me black. I usually just choose “other” for my ethnicity when filling out paperwork, but that doesn’t address the gap in the ethnic classification systems. I mean, I’m 1/8 Hispanic, too, technically… but why would I officially claim that when everything I know about Hispanic cultures is stuff I learned in college?

West High’s [Politically Correct] 2009 Jr. Prom

West High School in Anchorage, AK had their 2009 junior prom on January 25th. The embroidery shop at which I work was commissioned to make the sashes for the prom court royalty. Six princes, six princesses, and the sashes to be worn by the crowned 2009 Junior Prom King & Queen. They wanted them done a week beforehand, so that the prom court, elected by their peers, could show off their named sashes in the week leading up to prom. It was a pretty standard arrangement. We had all but the King and Queen sashes done on time. (I failed to sew the king and queen sashes in the right color. Bad me.) We gave them their prince and princess sashes on time and told them we’d get them their other two sashes as soon as they were done.

Well, on Wednesday of that week, we got a call from the activities director at the high school to commission eight more sashes at the last minute. It had turned out that all twelve of the students elected to the prom court were Caucasian. One of the teachers at the school, a black woman, raised a stink about it and singlehandedly forced the school to force the students to add eight minority students to their prom court.

I have two thoughts on this:

  1. Way to kill the democratic process. The school profile (pdf) you can download from the high school’s web site states that there are 1,768 students enrolled in the school and that “there are over 40 languages spoken by the students.” Everyone I’ve spoken to who went to West speaks of its very diverse student body. Does this woman really think that the students in a school with such diversity and with such a huge minority population would be so overwhelmingly racist as to choose twelve Caucasian prom court members on purpose? Couldn’t it possibly be that they really didn’t care what these people’s skin colors were and that all their favorite people just happened to be Caucasian?
  2. What’s the point? What are the chances that one of the people forced into the prom court got chosen for prom king or queen? The most popular people will still have been one of the twelve initially chosen. (I wish I knew who won the king and queen title, but as the sash embroiderer I’m not really in a position to find out.)

One can argue my first thought by pointing out that the Caucasian students may have been advantaged to start with, and that their advantaged status helped enable them to achieve the popularity needed to make the prom court. That’s a great argument. It really is. But that’s a larger social issue that started outside the school and which won’t be solved by forcing the students to diversify their prom court. Numerous studies in sociology have linked education to socioeconomic status in later life. How about redirecting the resources used to expand their prom court into bettering their education instead?

The whole thing is a perfect example of the problem with politically correct terminology: the use of politically correct terminology is well-meant, but it brings the issues it seeks to alleviate to the front of everyone’s minds. We as a society have carefully crafted terms which are designed to carry no connotation. That very lack of a connotation is a connotation in and of itself. “This is a very sensitive issue,” these terms say. “There’s a reason it’s taboo to say it another way.”

Politically correct terms only remain politically correct as long as they lack connotations, but the human mind relates things together as a natural part of the process of understanding things. In order to refrain from assigning connotations to these terms, we must constantly think about the fact that these terms have no connotations, which serves to keep the reasons for the lack of connotations fresh. Therefore, the use of politically correct terminology serves to perpetuate the need for politically correct terminology.

This whole thing put me in mind of a South Park episode I watched recently. It’s in season four and titled “Chef Goes Nanners.” In it, Chef makes a huge deal about the South Park flag needing to be changed, since it depicts four white guys hanging a black guy. The townsfolk, of course, are divided, with some citizens staunchly insisting that the flag’s design is a part of South Park’s history and shouldn’t be changed. The town ends up deciding to vote on the matter after the children have a debate about the flag design. It’s upon hearing the opening statements of the debate — none of which, on either side, have anything to do with racism — that Chef finally realizes that the children don’t see the racism issue of the flag’s design at all. To them, it doesn’t matter that it’s four white guys hanging a black guy because they don’t see a difference based on the color of skin. (If you want to watch the episode, it’s available as streaming media at www.southparkstudios.com.)