I find it interesting that there still some people who believe African Americans shouldn’t be offended by the use of the word nigger because they (African Americans) use the word. I believe the more pertinent question is: what does this say about moral development of such people? Furthermore, I find it offensive, as well as the height of arrogance, that some would presume that people “should get over it” when exposed to hate speech.
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Reflections on Niggerology
“I advance it there fore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to whites in endowments of both body and mind.”
— Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1785
There is no other word in the English language more closely related to the notion of White Supremacy and racial hatred than the word nigger as uttered by a bigot. Indeed, the word is so central to American history that it has its place right up there with loftier phrases such as freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
While Jefferson expressed doubts about the shameful institution of slavery, he apparently had no qualms about expressing his views regarding the inferiority of Blacks. And he dressed it in “scientific” prose, paving the way for a long and shameful history of scientific racism. This is where we can begin to see the roots of the word nigger — in the dialectic of white superiority versus black inferiority. This dialectic continues today, kept alive in the pseudoscience of Murray’s Bell Curve and the modern conservative movement’s racially coded language of “individuality,” “the underclass,” and “self-determination.”
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson fashioned the excuse he and his peers needed: a “rational” explanation for blurring the inherent conflict of a free nation built on the institution of slavery. According to Jefferson’s “observations,” blacks were little more than childlike, animalistic creatures doomed to lives of permanent subservience. Sadly, this is not much different from the assertions of conservative social scientists, both black and white, who blame enduring racial inequality on people of color and their white liberal “enablers.”
His ridiculous and inflammatory observations framed in scientific and “learned discourse,” lay down the foundation for what Josiah Nott, a 19th-century scientist who sought to prove blacks’ inferiority, described as “niggerology.” Journalist Jabari Asim links widespread acceptance of this pseudoscience to anti-black campaigns evident in courtrooms, congressional committees, churches, and the popular media.
Nigger, and all the historical baggage of that it comes with, is irrevocably tied to this ideology. Some whites would argue that nigger is merely an invective, but they do so at the expense of ignoring centuries of history. Just as some pooh-pooh the hanging of a noose as a mere prank, conveniently ignoring the implications of a lynching. The dominant view from this ahistorical perspective is that black people should just “get over it.” To me this is the same as saying, “Get over it… nigger,” because it’s saying that the issue isn’t hate speech itself. Rather, such logic situates the problem on the individual or group targeted with hate speech. Of course, others will accuse me of attempting to give blacks and people of color special consideration.
Now, having somewhat set the table for all this horrible word, let me address a more volatile issue: when, or is it ever right, to use the word nigger, or any other racial epithet. Asim does not believe the word can or should be expunged from our language. I tend to agree with him. He applauds black artists, such as comedian and actor Richard Pryor and poet Sonia Sanchez, who have used the word for aesthetic, historical, and ethical purposes. However, he calls black people’s casual use of “nigger” even in an attempt to reclaim it, unimaginative: “As long as we embrace the derogatory language that has long accompanied and abetted our systematic dehumanization, we shackle ourselves to those corrupting white delusions — and their attendant false story of our struggle in the United States.”
Determining when use of the “nigger” is permissible — even constructive — and when it is harmful is a delicate matter. I believe Asim contradicts himself. If the word can be used by artists for redemptive and ethical purposes, then why can’t a people similarly reclaim and redefine the word? After all, is it not true that who gets to wield power over language and how we define words (and ourselves) is at the core of self-empowerment.
In my personal life, among my friends, I use the word. Publicly, it would be more than stupid for me, to call a group of athletes “nappy-headed ho’s,” especially if I were an old white guy like Imus, with a history of documented racialized and bigoted views.
Imus tried to retaliate by suggesting that rappers use such language and it’s accepted, and it’ a double standard to suggest that his using it is wrong. This is the same white knee-jerk response from bigots who use or refuse to condemn the word. Niggers use the word, why can’t we?
It’s not a Black thing, a White thing, a woman thing, a man thing, a Latino/a thing, or even an American thing.
It’s called “boundaries,” something individuals saddled with a sense of entitlement often find hard to grasp. I know when some words are okay and not okay. And to misconstrue it and the context is playing with fire. As much as I identify with black culture, I would be a fool to go up to a black person I don’t know and claim him as, “my nigga.”
Just as it would be foolish for a black man I don’t know to walk up to me and call me a spic. It’s about membership, first. In the case of Imus, his true feelings got in the way. He actually believes that he was somehow entitled to use a racial slur (on the radio in front of tens of thousands of listeners, no less). And then he cried foul (irony!) because he felt he was being judged unfairly. Or, as a white person here noted, “I think if blacks continue to use the word nigger then perhaps they should not be shocked/offended/outraged when others do.”
Huh? Why not? It’s idiotic to justify one transgression by pointing out another perceived transgression. It is a shallow, child-like sense of morality — They do it, Mommie! Why can’t I!
Believe me, as a public speaker even I know the use of “ nigger” or “nappy-headed ho’” in a public situation would get me fired — and rightfully so.
Women can say certain words to women. Gays can say particular words to gays. Blacks can say some choice words to one another. In fact, individuals who are friends of different ethnic groups may consider it just fine to use racial slurs among themselves — if they all agree to it — but if a Black person is speaking to an Asian and isn’t a part of their concentric circle, then he might have some trouble on his hands. And vice versa.
But it goes deeper than that. Take my sister, for example. While growing up, my sister and I did not get along at all. We were constantly caught in a power struggle. One day, I was complaining to my best friend about her and he happened to express agreement with me, which caused me to turn on my friend: I can talk about my sister, but you can’t. It’s the same with team sports. Someone on your team can ride you, but watch out if it’s the member of an opposing team doing the riding.
However, even familiarity doesn’t give you a free pass to use certain words. As a journalist friend of mine — an African American woman — pointed out, “I feel in no way comfortable ever using the N-word. Not just because it is not a regular part of my vocabulary, but because I can’t just walk up to any stranger using it either… Black people don’t just walk up to each other indiscriminately using that word with one another; that’s suspect and you can get a proper ass-kicking if you do it, even if you’re the same race.”
It’s all about context. What’s appropriate in one context is inappropriate in another. Furthermore, if an individual expresses displeasure over my language, then it’s up to me to give some respectful consideration.
This is not to say that using nigger is perfectly fine. I might use it when in the company of some my friends, but that’s with friends with whom I have a certain unspoken agreement with. They know I’m not calling them nigger in the context of Jeffersonian niggerology as a way to assert my racial superiority. They know me and we have a shared history and know that my usage of the word nigger comes more from the sentiment expressed by Felipe Luciano’s poem ¡Jibaro! My Pretty Little Nigger Man, or the Last Poet’s Niggers Are Scared of Revolution, than from Charles Murray’s attempt to justify indefensible social policy decisions based on the erroneous assertion that blacks are intellectually inferior and thus doomed to life as a permanent underclass.
To you, it may not be right and you may not think it’s fair. That’s just the way it is. If a black person expresses displeasure at you calling him or her a nigger, then you need to get with the program.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…