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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The "N" Word

Years ago, Dick Gregory, a comedian of some fame, published a book called, "Nigger." His thought was that if this word was brought out of the closet and into the light, it would lose its sting. Naturally, his plan didn't work. It continues to be used. It is difficult to change verbal habits but even harder to change human prejudices.

Currently, according to the Houston Chronicle, Tammie Campbell
is making an effort to "bury" the "N" Word. She is leading a diverse Houston-area group focused on eradicating the term's usage and teaching its history. They are hosting an unusual event at 9 a.m. today at a Pearland cemetery to ''bury the N-word" in a coffin.
I wish her luck. She is going to need it. The Chronicle article says says that various communities have in one way or another tried to forcibly reduce use of the "N" word by making it a misdemeanor crime or passing nonbinding resolutions banning the word. The problem here is that anything with teeth would surely run afoul of the First Amendment right to free speech. The only way these efforts can succeed, in my view, is in connection with a systematic push to make the word "politically incorrect" along with encouraging people to shun anyone who uses it. That too would probably not work but just that sort of action did cause people's attitudes and behavior in regard to smoking to change.

The word "nigger" continues to be widely used by African Americans addressing other African Americans either as an insult or as a way of signaling solidarity. This "paradoxical" use is like one White friend meeting another he hasn't seen in a long time saying, "You SOB, where have you been keeping yourself?" Talibah Newman is quoted at Taylor Siluwe's web site as saying
Many would say that it is wonderful that blacks as a race can take something so negative and turn it around. I say why bring something so demeaning back into the African American community and tempt some Caucasians to the point to where they think it is ok to say it. As always African Americans then believe that they reserve the right to get angry with whites for using the word as a racial slur.
Fighting against this sort of usage is like trying to stop a moving train with one's body. The fact is though that there are Whites who say they believe that the use of this word by African Americans does legitimize its use by Whites. This is nonsense in my view, a purely sophistical defense of its use. The fact is that an African American male who addresses some stranger who is also African American as "Hey, Nigger" to get his attention and in a less than friendly tone of voice is likely to be going in for dental surgery very soon thereafter. The paradoxical uses of "nigger" will normally be used by friends with friends or in rap music.

There is a very interesting analysis of the various uses of this word can be found at a web site page written by Mike Daley
Black semantics are highly context-bound. A notable example, and one which will be applicable in a study of rap lyrics, is the use of profanity. It is used in both negative and positive ways, depending on context. Sometimes it has no "meaning" at all, and functions as a kind of rhythmic/semantic filler in speech contexts. Smitherman gives an example of "multiple subjective association process" in the use of the word "nigger/nigguh". She lists four possible meanings of the words, depending on context:

1. personal affection or endearment
2. culturally Black, identifying with and sharing the values of black people, as opposed to "African-Americans", which has a more middle-class connotation
3. expression of disapproval for a person's actions
4. identifying Black folks - period (Smitherman 1994:62)

Anthropologist Claudia Mitchell-Kernan further comments on the context-bound meaning of "nigger": "The use of 'nigger' with other black English markers has the effect of 'smiling when you say that.' The use of standard English with 'nigger,' in the words of an informant, is 'the wrong tone of voice' and may be taken as abusive (Mitchell-Kernan 1973, 328)."
The only thing I would quarrel with here is the apparent presumption that "nigger" is unusual in being context bound. All language is context bound.

Years ago, during my first year teaching at the University of Illinois, I lived in an apartment complex with a not very well educated and not especially bright working class White guy and we fell into a discussion of his racial views. He asserted that he was better than African Americans. I, somewhat astonished, asked if he was better than all of them? He said he was. I then ran though some prominent African Americans' names asking each time whether he was better than that person. Every time he said he was. It is that sort of thing that is the problem. The working class see themselves as lower on the White totem pole than professionals, business men and women, and others who are better educated, have better jobs, and make more money. This seems to exacerbate a need to feel superior to someone so that they can maintain their own self-esteem. And, at the time, in Illinois the group that he would need to feel superior to would have been African Americans. And so long as African Americans are the ones selected for abuse there will be a need for the word "nigger" for such people.

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11 Comments:

Blogger Courtney said...

"The only way these efforts can succeed, in my view, is in connection with a systematic push to make the word "politically incorrect" along with encouraging people to shun anyone who uses it."

In my opinion, this is the exact thing that will make the word all the more appealing to those looking for a way to shock and appall. The problem here is not the word...it's racism. Even succeeding in eliminating the word from the language (if it were even feasible) would not eliminate the hatred people use the word to express.

If a person had a gun and was trying to shoot you, eliminating one of his bullets would be a hollow victory indeed.

I believe the best way to minimize the impact of this word is simply to stop caring. The more we freak out every time someone says it, the more power we give it.

6:03 PM

 
Blogger Habibi said...

I don't think we should have taboo on words. For me it is different cos I am not English Speaker and the taboo comes along only with culture. In Spanish we have also words that are "prohibited" but not that many.
Have you read/seen "Everything is Illuminated"? there is an scene about the N-word, and I find it very funny cos it is ammong other words such as Woman or Gay.
I don't think we should bury the word, cos this things come naturally. Or, at least, if the group it reffers to feels bad about it. I don't really know how African-American people feel about the N word, but the "coloured" people in Spain do not mind the word "negro". And now there is this oh-don't-say-the-word-"moro" thing. I just find it so funny cos we try to erase things that actually exist.

8:02 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

I agree, courntey. Racism is the problem. But making public displays of racial expressions taboo might have bigger effect than you think. I wonder if you would accept the view that every time a Blacks cries racism and Sharpton and Jackson show up, inspires greater racial hatred among those that feel it. The recent attack by Gary Sheffield on the Yankee manager, Joe Torre, a person who previously had never been criticized in this way after many years of playing and managing, makes me want to cringe. He is, in a phrase, a racial whiner. He can only anger Whites who like Torre. He even attacked "Golden Boy" Jeter as being insufficiently Black. Totally outrageous and in a way shows how deranged this guy is. If there had been real problems with Torre when Sheffield played for him he could have talked to Steinbrenner about it. But he isn't claiming that he did and that George didn't respond.

habibi, we already have a host of words that are taboo, such as the "four letter words," language that religious people think "takes the Lord's name in vain," and words that disparage minorities like "spic" for Hispanics, "kike" for Jews, and "nigger," among many others. In a way social values have in a natural way led to the view that they should be avoided.

11:49 AM

 
Blogger eebahgum! said...

In Australia there is a very interesting parallel of the N-word in the use of the word 'Wog'. Its etymology is uncertain, but it's always been used in Oz as a derogatory term for southern Europeans or people of Mediterranean appearance (as well as for having a minor illness--hence the uproarious laughter which used to follow when anyone reported they had been 'in bed with a wog'.

Inevitably the large Italian and Greek communities in Australia started using the word themselves, and that became even more common when a group of Greek-Australian comedians adopted the term, made a movie called 'Wogs out of Work' and became famous on big and small screen, parodying the stereotypes associated with their community in Australia.

Once this word was only used rudely by non-Mediterraneans about Mediterranean-looking people. By the late 70s it had been adopted by these communities for their own use, usually sympathetically. The popularity of Wogs out of Work has had the interesting effect of somewhat legitimising the use of the word as an affectionate term by people outside that community and it is foreseeable that in a couple of decades the word will no longer be used in a derogatory sense at all.

But for now, as you say, it all comes down to context. Who is using the word and how?

10:43 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

The term "wog" is used in the UK in the same way, I believe. One reason that it might have become less pejorative is that basically such people are "white" people or, at least, they are so regarded in the US. My memory is that in the UK it was used also for Indians. Wikipedia says, in fact, that it was used to refer to people from/in India, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. Check out this entry. The Brits, of course, are reaping what they sowed in the subway bombings and the more recent attempts in London and the attack in Glasgow.

7:10 AM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:23 AM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

See, you can't handle the real questions. I've decided you're not cool enough for my blogroll. Don't worry, I won't be back. I see you're just here for the really dumb people.

12:45 PM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

Actually, your question was beyond dumb and so I figured you were just baiting me. I just threw the bait back.

2:19 PM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

You're right. I'm a jerk. I always come back when I say I won't. Now what an immature comment I left you. I know. I guess you didn't see where I was coming from. You're trying have a respectable conversation and I come in here like a nitwit.

Was I baiting you? No, I just come across kinda unusual. Me saying cracker is like when two brothers meet up and they call each other the n word. But they don't really say "Hey Nigger, wazzzup!" they say "Hey Nigga, wazzzup!". So as you can see, there is a subtle difference. That being said, by no means can a white man say that to a black man as a term of endearment, believe me because I've tried. Of course we all know that. But white guys can say that to each other in a joking way. So me sayin Cracker is like a black man saying Nigga.

You see, it was a failed social experiment. But my question is still valid. Is it bad to say Negro? Is it incorrect or what? Can I not say Negro? Do the black folks frown on this word being used? Because, to me, it is a scientific term to describe people of the black race. I mean we can say cat, but we can also say feline. We can say dog, but we can also say canine. We can say breastbone, but we can also say sternum. You see where I'm going with this? We can say black, but we can also say Negro. Or can we?

1:57 AM

 
Blogger Thr Language Guy said...

"Negro" is not a scientific term. "Negroid" is, I think. Blacks have determined that it is a racist term on the grounds that it was originated by Whites to refer to them. Whitey doesn't get to decide what words are appropriate. I think "Black" may be fine. I think "African American" may be fine. I know "Afro American" is not -- evokes the idea of the Afro haircut.

7:57 AM

 
Blogger Paul F. said...

Thanks, LG. I won't be using negro either.

7:43 PM

 

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