Defense of the N-Word?


2015-02-03 – I want to first say that I don’t normally use “the n-word.” But I used it in the title of today’s post because it made my title kinda low-life. I thought it might make you click on the post and read it.

It apparently worked. Here you are.

The topic comes up because my son posted an article called “Nigga? Please,” by Talib Kweli Greene. I’m not too knowledgeable about hip-hop, but somewhere in the back of my head is a vague memory that this guy is one of the good hip-hop artists. My son loves this stuff. I think he’s been to this guy’s concerts. Whatever. That’s not the point.

My boys and their friends, who are of all different races, differ with me on the use of the word “nigger” (or “nigga”). I’m against it. They say it depends on context. This article supports the view that context is important.

I’m sure that’s true. If you are a white racist and you use the word “nigger” in a gathering of white racists, you’re totally cool. If you are a hip-hop artist trying to make some sort of political point in your music, you are totally cool. Context rules.

But most of us don’t associate on a daily basis with the White Aryan Nation. Nor are we hip-hop stars. We travel in a mixed group of people who are—maybe passively racist, maybe not—and uncomfortable saying or hearing the word “nigger.”

Talib Greene’s mom is one of those. She’s my generation. Greene has what you might call a more nuanced view and I don’t agree with what he says at all.

Greene talks about the history of the word “nigger” and how it passed from being a neutral term to being a pejorative term.

His mom and I lived through a period during which other racial terms came in and out of fashion. Greene only barely mentions that. So let me mention it.

When I was young, calling a person black was pejorative. But during the civil rights struggles of the sixties the term “black” was seized upon with pride. Suddenly there was black pride and black power. People squirmed to hear “black” used in a positive way, but society made the transition. People don’t even remember it as pejorative.

That change was ushered in by people who used the word “black” in a challenging and in-your-face manner. It was very confusing at the time. You didn’t know—then—whether you should say “black” or “Negro” or “colored.” You probably don’t remember that those terms took the opposite path—going from acceptable to unacceptable—or at best old fashioned. No one uses them today, but there are two organizations that retain these words in their titles: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the United Negro College Fund.

So, it is not unprecedented for a racial term to go from taboo to preferred and vice versa.

I don’t see that happening with the word “nigger.”

Sorry, kids.

I don’t see it being associated with pride, but rather with victimhood, and gangsta culture. I could be wrong about that. But I have seen and heard many African-American (you remember that term, too?) political leaders who have expressed the same opinion. I think Greene has that view.

I don’t deny the possibility that the trend could go the other way, but I don’t see it.

So those of us who are neither rabid racists nor hip-hop artists have a dilemma. Sure, we can say “nigger” when we are with friends who buy into hip-hop chic—no problem. But it’s a habit that can be hurtful outside of those circles. I prefer the cautious approach: don’t say it. Especially  if you are white.

I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who will be offended if you don’t call him or her a “nigger.” But plenty of people will be offended if you do. This is not a political movement (as was the case when the term “black” was legitimized). There is no statement made. We’re not moving society to a better place where the word “nigger” can come out of the closet. It just means that you like hip-hop music . . . or that you are a white racist. One of the two.

Racial and ethnic terms are tricky. There are a few that refer to my group. The most interesting to me is the word “Jew.” I think of the word “Jew” as a neutral, non-pejorative English term for my religious/ethnic group. I have friends, though, who are nervous about using the word “Jew” for fear of offending me. Usually, I end up as a “Jewish person.” Somehow that is seen as more enlightened than calling me a Jew.

And yes, I know the derogatory meanings of the term. They are simply not part of my identity. I’m a Jew and that’s that. If you want to think that’s derogatory, then you are not my friend. Or your are ignorant and need to get straightened out.

The point is, a people, any people, has the right to say what they want to be called. If you want to be called a nigger, hey, you’re a nigger. But so far, I don’t see people clamoring to be called niggers—at least not by white people. So I don’t do it. It’s pretty simple.

And of course, Louis CK is totally right about using “the n-word” as Green quoted him in his article:

“When you say ‘the n-word’ you put the word ‘nigger’ in the listeners’ head. That’s what saying a word is. You say ‘the n-word’ and I go, ‘oh, she means nigger.’ You’re making me say it in my head. Why don’t you say it instead and take responsibility for the shitty words you want to say?”

Either you say “nigger” or you don’t. I don’t. (Except for the 14 instances in this post!)


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