Politics: The N Word: Taboo to Whites, Endearing to Blacks

Published by: on Thursday August 23rd, 2012

Nigger. Nigga. Cracker. Honky. I could go on with a long list of racial slurs, but no matter how long the list, most of you are still soothing the sting from the first word or giggling delightfully in your cyber-anonymity. We will need to begin with the etymology of the word “nigger”. The word's origins can be found in the vast Indo-European language family in Latin. The Latin word for the color black is nigrum, and the stem of nigrum is niger (pronounced nye-jer). According to sources:

 “It is also likely that the word “nigger” is a phonetic spelling of the white Southern mispronunciation of Negro. Whatever its origins, by the early 1800's it was firmly established as a denigration epithet. Almost two centuries later, it remains a chief symbol of white racism.”

By many accounts, the word “nigger” is the most offensive word in the English language. Despite the humble beginnings of its predecessor, “nigger” is a very racially charged word which calumniates the character of the target when used as a racial slur. After all, the word is not merely an indication of a racial categorization but is also indicative of specific, negative character traits including laziness, buffoonery, ignorance, moral inferiority, extreme unsophistication and intellectual retardation. So everyone should see why so many Americans loathe the use of the word.

Whites, in light of black usage of the word among themselves, want to know why this word is being tolerated as a term of endearment. Moreover, since the meaning and usage has evolved for some black people, who have obviously been able to let go of its dark history and re-define it, why can't they? It's a valid question. It seems illogical to me that if modern day usage of the word “nigger” is intended to change the negative connotation into an endearing one, that there would still be racist accusations hurled at white users, unless the context is clearly racially derogatory and not an attempt to participate in black American solidarity or mere slang lexicon.

Many black people who use it in an endearing manner make the distinction between "nigger" and "nigga", the latter of which they prefer and deem acceptable, but in reality, the only real difference is a slight phonetic one and in the spelling. Explanations for this difference are profoundly inadequate in my opinion, so I will proceed giving no merit to this distinction.

In recent years, there have been several moratoriums on use of the “N” word. In 2007, the NAACP held a symbolic funeral and burial for the word at its annual convention. There have been attempts to impose fines for uttering this word, but some believe that attempts to censor it have only made its usage flourish. Then there are those who go to great lengths to ban the word from classic literature, such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which I believe is a disservice to readers. In censoring the author's words in the name of preventing potential outrage, the slavery setting of the novel is made to appear less dehumanizing than slavery actually was. As a black person, I was in no way offended by Twain's use of the "N" word, as it is merely a realistic reflection of the time period. In fact, the absence of the "N" word in censored versions of classic novels with slavery settings should be viewed as anachronistic.

White people, understand that black people who use the word do so mostly for solidarity. They are preceded by many black comedians and rappers who have used the word in stand up or music, such as Richard Pryor , rappers Notorious B.I.G, and Common. In my opinion use of the word in pop culture by black artists has catapulted it's acceptable use among youth and guaranteed that it's lifespan will be a perpetual one, with all known usages included. As long as black people use the “N” word for so-called endearing reasons, pejorative usage is continuously kept alive. If I use a knife only to slice a piece of fruit it doesn't change the fact that the same knife can be or has been used to kill a man.

For the record, let me first say that I don't use the word or any pejoratives. My command of the English language is more than adequate without it. There was a time when I was in agreement with those who wanted the word banned, however, I am also strongly opposed to suppression of free speech, and I know that I cannot have it both ways. So I had to choose which was more important to me – having full freedom of expression or censorship of a word because I happen not to like it.

Many of the proponents for eradicating the “N” word only advocate for its removal. If we expunge the "N" word from human vocabulary, we also need to expunge all ethnophaulisms. Why do proponents of banning the "N" word only concern themselves with it alone, as if minorities don't have their own pejoratives for white people? They almost never consider the harm inflicted upon non-black people. A history of enslavement is not a prerequisite for hurtful feelings or anger in response to being the target of a racial slur. People can use whatever words they want, but they also have to deal with the social or legal consequences. If you call a black person the “N” word while on the job, try using the freedom of speech as a defense when you are handed a pink slip and see how well it works.

Derogatory use of the “N” word is fueled by responses - bottom line. I can't speak for all black people, but the few times in my life when I have been called a "nigger or nigga" pejoratively, all came from other black persons except once. Some of you are probably thinking “but none of those other words are as offensive as the “N” word!” - Says who? Does the offender really get to define the level of insult the offended feels? If white people can't use the "N" word then black people must stop using the words honky, cracker and their cousins.

Now I have asked thousands of black people if whites can use the “N” word and the majority answered with an emphatic “No!” Of the ones that answered yes, this is the reason according to debatepedia.com , which matched most responses I received:

"Whites can say "nigger" if blacks use it to describe whites. White people should be able to use it, but realistically they can't use it first. It has to start with the people who get offended by it. Black people have to use this word towards white people the same way they use towards their own. It is already believed that if a white person says it they're racist so it has to start from the interior. Black people have to start acknowledging white people as niggers for the word to lose its racial potency."

Comedian Chris Rock does a very clever job of distinguishing between a “nigger” and a black person  in his stand up entitled, "Bigger and Blacker" here in this clip (Beware! the clip contains strong use of profanity). What he achieved through comedy is the transcending of the word from a racial slur to a behavioral one. In light of his satire, a person of any race who exhibits certain behavioral traits can be a nigger.  This particular comedic routine is groundbreaking because it casts away stereotypes associated with black culture and exiles them to a separate land of "nigger" culture, where they belong.  In other words, being black and being a "nigger" are not synonymous, nor interchangeable. It is the most profound and honest way, in which I have seen the word evolve etymologically in American culture. In my view, this is the only way to remove the racial stigma if some think usage must persist.

Interestingly enough, usage of the “N” word has evolved to denigrate some from other races/cultures. The racial pejoratives whigger (Affluent suburban white kids who dress, talk and act like they were brought up in the ghetto), taco nigger (refers to Hispanics), sand nigger (Arabs), spud nigger (Irish), snow nigger (Eskimos) have all been used in the past, or are currently used to describe others. So the pejorative usage has not ended with black Americans, unfortunately. 

Younger people of all ethnic backgrounds are more likely to use pejoratives within the confines of their age group. According to an Associated Press MTV survey, 57% of those surveyed (all ages 14-24) said that they think their friends are only joking when they call them “fags” or “faggot”. They simply do not take such language seriously. Of course when asked about the “N” word the tolerance decreased, which is not a surprise to me. The tolerance for the words “fag” or “faggot” had nothing to do with race, as homosexuality is present among every race and ethnic group. What allowed for tolerance to those surveyed was familiarity with the user of the slur. I'm willing to bet that for black people, being called the “N” word by a black person who is not known to the target, is offensive as well, if the homosexual slurs can be seen as a precedent.

So can white people use the “N” word? My answer, in the preservation of free speech, is that they absolutely can, and the same can be said for anyone else. Will they suffer consequences if they do? In most cases yes depending on the audience and the context. Depending on the audience, unfortunately, the context may not even be considered before labels are hurled at the user.

Take for example the case of Dr. Laura Schlessinger who used the “N” word several times on her show in a non-racist context with a black caller. You can listen to the conversation here and judge for yourself. Dr. Laura was crucified, which brings me to my final point. There are some who only pretend to want a moratorium on the “N” word. I say pretend, because without it, some claims of racism would be exponentially weakened. The “N” word is their meal ticket when it comes from the mouths of whites, and it is a sad state of affairs, when context is not fairly taken into consideration. This can be interpreted to mean that the “N” word when used between black people is a sign of linguistic evolution and when used by whites, atavistic regression. We must allow context to dictate meaning, not a person's race.

We are now living in a time where usage by whites in and of itself is sufficient to warrant certain accusations. In other words, reverse racism is used in the assessment of racism. Can you see how horribly ironic that is? Black anger when a white person uses the "N" word is hypocritical, especially since many of us use “cracker” or “honky”, which are equally offensive, without giving it a second thought. White people, I reiterate, yes, you can use the word, but the more important question is should you use the “N” word in any context, and the answer is an acceptable “N” word – NO!

Stay tuned for the next question on this journey, from black Americans: “Why do white people love animals as much as they do humans?/Is it true that white people smell like wet dogs when swimming when their hair gets wet?”