What’s in a Name? Plenty, That’s What!

Popularized by young African Americans’ use of it in hip-hop music, the word “nigger” is no longer heard only in the heat of an argument, but is now also heard in polite conversation. It is used as an expression of love that a person would say to another, like, “You’re my nigger.”

Agreeing with its popular use, Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy’s latest book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, suggests that the word nigger should be used not only by African Americans, but also by whites. After all, given its broad-based cultural acceptance, whites now can be “niggers” too, and they can not only hurl the epithets at each other but at the intended group it was used against: African Americans.

While it is easy to get sidetracked by raising queries about the tenor and intent of Kennedy’s promotion of the use of the word, we cannot ignore the moral and ethical issues this word raises for all of us who want to be racially responsible, inclusive and well-intended in our use of language. The bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it.

In my opinion, our cavalier use of the “N-word” speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as a people — both white and black Americans — have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of epithets, and our ignorance of their historical origins.

Is it appropriate for people to use these epithets if they do or do not belong to the group it was originally intended for? Does reclaiming these words serve as an act of group agency or as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it?

Derogatory words like “bitch” and “queer” also have broad-based cultural acceptance.

In commenting on reclaiming the use of the word “bitch,” Joan Morgan, author of When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-Hop Feminist, told the Boston Globe, “I don’t think that we can then make the leap that it’s really going to change or impact the way that men see and use the word. The word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of male language that’s used to disparage women.”

A reader of my New England column for a LGBT paper, “The Religion Thang,” posed an important yet troubling question to me. In a letter to the editor, he asked me, “In your writings, do you ever refer to black people as ‘niggers’? If you don’t, why not? Many young blacks refer to themselves as ‘niggers’. Isn’t it empowering for you people to take back such an ugly word?” He asked this because I commonly refer to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgendered people as “queers”.

The word “queer” entered the American lexicon as a self-referential term in the 1990s. It was hailed as a chosen term to reflect the new paradigm in LGBT politics, hence the birth of queer politics. I embrace the term to stand in solidarity with this new movement and to reflect its diversity by adding my voice and activism.

Also, the term “queer” has been embraced by the majority of LGBT people both in the academy and on the street, and you see that acceptance in bookstores where a plethora of material on topics like queer theory, queer literature and queer theology are displayed.

The term “nigger,” on the other hand, has not as of yet been hailed as a chosen term by the majority of African Americans. The term “nigger,” has neither been embraced by African Americans in the academy nor in the Black Church, nor by the majority of us on the street.

Does African Americans’ appropriation of the term as insiders obliterate not only the historical baggage fraught with the word, but its concomitant social relations among blacks, and between whites and blacks as well? Does hearing other African Americans use the term among themselves give them — as well as other ethnic groups — the license to use it?

Simply because some African Americans use the term it does not negate its origin to slavery, or this country’s continued hatred toward African Americans as well as African Americans’ long history of self-hatred.

Because language is a representation of culture, it reinscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

The word “nigger” is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that’s used to disparage African Americans. And I argue that the word can no more be eradicated from the American lexicon than it can be from the American psyche.

Case in point: the Boston brouhaha over the April 1998 headline in Boston Magazine which featured Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., chairman of Harvard University’s African American Studies Department and director of its W.E.B. DuBois Center. The title profiled him as the “Head Negro in Charge” of the black intellectual enterprise in this country. This article had a national impact and opened a dialogue about these words.

The title “Head Negro in Charge” where the “N” doesn’t stand for “Negro”, but instead “nigger” — and in common parlance among African Americans is referred to by its initials “HNIC” — derives from an abuse of power where a white slave owner chose a field slave as his overseer to maintain his relations of racial and labor exploitations. In keeping his fellow enslaved laborers in their place, the overseer was also kept in place because his survival was dependent on executing the demands of his master. Today, the term in black vernacular still conveys and maintains the same power inequities where the white establishment chooses one African American as a spokesperson and gatekeeper for the entire race.

The notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other as “Negroes” or “niggers,” yet considers it racist for others to do so, unquestionably sets up a double standard. The notion that one ethnic group has property rights to a term is a reductio ad absurdum argument since language is a public enterprise. No one — black or white — escapes the stranglehold of racist language and images, whether reclaimed or left alone. As African-Caribbean poet Audre Lorde cautioned us all, we cannot use the master’s tool to dismantle his house. Although the liberation of a people is also rooted in the liberation of language, reclaiming a racist word like “nigger” does not eradicate its historical baggage, and its existing racial relations among us.

Instead it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustices done to a specific group of Americans. It allows all Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power of language because of the currency this racial epithet still has. And lastly, it thwarts the daily struggle in which many Americans engage in trying to ameliorate race relations.

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