N-word: Beyond blaming Kramer

The racist rant heard nationwide by Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sitcom “Seinfeld,” shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, but most Americans, sending us back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

While it is easy to get sidetracked by raising queries about the intent of Richards’ repetitive use of the n-word, or to vilify Richards for his vitriol, we as Americans must look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word develops a broad-base cultural acceptance in our society today.

The current bickering over the word — made popular by young African-American use in hip-hop music — is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but about who has the right to use it, which is why Richards was publicly pulverized. Many African-Americans, and not just the hip-hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word functions as a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it. However, the notion that it is acceptable for African-Americans to refer to each other using the n-word — yet it is considered racist for others outside the race — unquestionably sets up a double standard. The notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is an absurd argument, since language is a public enterprise.

The appropriation of the n-word by African-Americans fails to obliterate the word’s historical baggage. The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of a racist language that is still used to disparage African-Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the “er” ending and replacing it with either an “a” or “ah” ending, the term morphs into a term of endearment. But many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s, many African-Americans used the “a” ending as a pejorative term to denote class difference among themselves.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the dictionary definition of the n-word to no longer mean African-Americans, but instead a racial slur. And while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture’s continuous use of the n-word makes it harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche. Why? Because language is a representation of culture. Language reinscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, which we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and consequently transmit generationally.

Many activists argue that Richards’ repentance should be volunteer work in a predominately African-American community. However, he would find there, too, that many of us keep the n-word alive. What would work for him — and many in my community — is a history lesson.

Published in the Metro, November 29, 2006. 

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