This is another in a series of excerpts from my book, the working title of which is: Reluctant Racist.
Warning: This chapter contains the full version of what is ridiculously referred to as the “N” word. Anyone who has so little understanding of this word that he or she is offended by its mere presence should stop reading, or prepare to be offended.
Please accept my sincerest apologies for this, but the refusal of people to use the word nigger, when in fact referring to that specific word (and not addressing someone as such), is not only childish but cowardly. O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden called it the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language. This, I assume, means that cocksuckingmotherfucker is not as bad, nor, presumably, is Nazi baby-killer, (I could construct many others).
I respectfully request to be spared the histrionics. The ridiculousness with which people refer to this word has gotten so far out of hand as to make it laughable. It has gone so far at times that an aid to Washington DC mayor Anthony Williams, a man named David Howard, in 1999, used the word “Niggardly” to refer to the city budget. The word niggardly is an Old Dutch word meaning stingy, or cheap. Howard, even after fully explaining himself, was forced to resign in the ensuing maelstrom, with no consideration given to the etymological difference between these two words. Columnist Tony Snow remarked that Howard had received a “linguistic lynching” and that those who attacked him were expecting him to apologize for their own ignorance. This is indicative of the extreme sensitivity to any word starting with the prefix nig. It is obvious that there is always someone waiting in the wings for the opportunity to be “shocked, just shocked!” at the use of an ostensibly insulting word, meaning and context notwithstanding.
It is not the word which insults, but the sentiment behind it. One problem with this particular word is that the historic sentiment of disdain, condescension and hatred is so firmly attached to it as to appear inseparable. I do understand, however, when and by whom it can be used and not be considered an insult. Even as a non- black, I’m able to grasp why it is used by many in various parts of the black culture, but not allowed elsewhere. It is used by some blacks as a form of insider endearment. It is a symbol of shared oppression, to be used only by them as a kind of a wink-and-nod to their shared history. It is a way of taking the word away from white people by embracing it; thereby saying to the low-rent whites who still use such antediluvian expressions that it doesn’t hurt, even though it might. The only other rule about the word should be that it can be used by white people only when discussing the word itself-not when discussing the people to whom it has historically been used to refer.
There are hundreds of examples of the exact sentiments and words used within a community that are not allowed to someone outside the community. I am affiliated with my local theater and many times will hear some male gay members of the same theater refer to themselves, jokingly as “ladies”, as in, “it’s time to go ladies”. They will also call each other “girls” or “bitches”, or even “fags”, yet I am certain that, since I am not one of their inner circle, it would be offensive if I were to refer to any of them in a similar manner. These words are used in a similar manner to nigger, in that the references are by members of a particular group to others within the same group. This has been true for many years and in many cultures. I’ve heard Italians call each other Guineas, Wops and Dagos many times, but I would expect them to take offense if I referred to them similarly. I would never call a person of Irish descent a Mic, but they certainly do to each other. Every group has its insider quasi-insulting terms, which they use as a method of ribbing each other or identifying a shared suffering among them, but those terms are generally not taken in the same spirit when used by others outside the group.
There are many who will trace the history of the word, its historical meanings throughout various periods, or its true or imagined origins, in an effort to somehow justify its use by them. None of this matters. If the general consensus that a word is considered insulting to a particular ethnic group, other ethnic groups should simply be courteous enough to avoid the use of the word! It is easy to not say words in certain circumstances. I’d bet most people wouldn’t say fuck in church (among many other words), cocksucker in a corporate board meeting or cunt in front of their mother, but strangely we never hear people on the radio or cable news rationalizing why they should be able to do so, just because they once heard someone do so. I’ve yet to hear anyone say that any of the aforementioned social mores and restriction on the use of the above words constitutes a restriction on their First Amendment rights to free speech. But I have heard it about nigger.
The word has been hatefully defined by hateful white people after hundreds of years of abuse. For that reason, it no longer belongs in the lexicon of white people, and those who miss the days when they could use it need to have their true motivations questioned. If black people want to use it, it should not constitute license for whites to mimic them.
I submit that the use of the word nigger when describing another person, by those of any skin color, has more negative connotations for the user than the recipient. Its use suggests more a dearth of vocabulary than a cleverness or membership in some exclusive club.
I would never, whether to a good friend as in insider kind of joke or hated foe as an insult, refer to any human being as a nigger. Those who do use it in that fashion say more about their poor education and upbringing than they do about the person to whom it is directed. But, once again, that doesn’t mean that I can’t use the word itself when discussing the word itself.
One conundrum, however, is that those who would actually call black people nigger do the least harm. It is the angry white man, likely angry at his own lot in life, who may be looking for a scapegoat for his own underachievement and, not finding enough genuine reason to disparage others, reverts to cowardly, simplistic, unspoken racism, and merely thinks it without outward expression. It is he who will never reveal his hatred, but will likely act upon it every chance he gets. It is he who will never say the word, but wishes he could. It is he who argues why he should be justified in doing so, for rationales so old, time-worn and discounted as to make one wonder if he has watched the news in the last 30 years. It is used by the person who longs for a time when whites could bolster their personal feelings of inadequacy by rendering others inadequate.
When someone refers to someone else as a nigger, he is revealing himself to be exactly what he believes the word to mean.