The Return of the N-Word
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The Return of the N-Word

October 5, 2011, 9:17 am
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Isn't Nigga by any other name still Nigger?
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It seems every couple of years the issue as to whether the N-word can be uttered, much less spelled out in text, makes headlines. Back in 2007, Don Imus got into hot water over his description of the Rutgers Women's basketball team as 'nappy-headed hos.' This led to a friend, Hamilton Jordan (former White House Chief of Staff), to phone in to his radio show in his support and defense, mentioning that the language he hears on the Chappelle Show and in rap videos is much more explosive than anything Imus or his co-host said. That defense, in turn, led to a national dialogue about the slur and how Black people view it versus how others view it.


The subject pops up once again as news of Rick Perry's family's unfortunately named ranch surfaces. As it turns out, his family leased the land for years before Perry himself signed onto the lease in the late nineties and then again in the mid 2000s. The problem? To some, the fact that he ever leased or went to place called 'Niggerhead Ranch' and to others, that he (or his father) merely painted over the rock rather than remove it entirely.


It doesn't matter that his family doesn't own the property and perhaps doesn't have the authority to remove the rock nor does it seem to matter to people that Perry's family did not in fact name the place. The only issue is that a white person has been associated with the word 'nigger' and the conflict of that pairing was brought to light by the panel on the daytime talk show, 'The View.'


While talking about the ranch, Barbara Walters, understandably, called it by its name, which was swiftly muted out by censors (thanks to tape delay). She expressed discomfort at saying the word and expressed confused awe that Whoopi (Goldberg)could utter the word repeatedly without her stomach caving in.


Goldberg, a seasoned comic, admitted that she delights in saying things you're not supposed to say and added that she knows that when Ms. Walters says it or anyone else for that matter, that it has nothing to do with her. Co-host, Sherri Shepherd, however, confessed to being uncomfortable with Barbara's usage and wielded that ugly double edge sword that many Black people whip out to defend the use of the slur, with the exclusion of most non-blacks: semantics. In other words, how White people mean, use and pronounce the word (nigger), is distinctly different from how Black people mean, use and pronounce the word (nigga, without or without an 'h').


What this comes down to is what's good for the goose isn't good for the gander. Lots of white people have a problem with this logic, that Black people can say it and they can't; isn't something that's wrong, always wrong, no matter what? The short answer: no. Words like this often become esoteric, wherein only members of that group can take liberty with its use. All others tread thin ice. It's no different than gay people who use the word 'queer' or women who feel empowered calling themselves 'bitches,' but put those same people in a room with someone else saying that…it's an entirely different story.


I don't buy the argument that certain marginalized groups have taken abusive language and evolved it to the point that the word's power to demean is stripped away; sticks and stones may break my bones, but word's can never hurt me?…Yeah, right. No matter how exclusive words in the English language may be, it's going to take more than slick defenses to kill the pain caused by their utterance. If 'the word' wasn't such a big deal, why are we calling it the n-word? Why did Michael Richards get in such trouble after an ill-fated trip to the Laugh Factory in 2006? Or go back to 1999, when David Howard, head of the Office of Public Advocate in DC, was pushed into resigning for using the word 'niggardly,' a word which sounds worse than it is and means cheap?


Interestingly enough, during the same segment of the View, Whoopi also said 'wop' and wasn't bleeped, so it suggests that 'nigger' carries 'special privileges', elicits heighten responses that perhaps other ethnic slurs don't. Which further implies that the same people who defend its use by members within the African American community, have yet to come to terms with it being said outside those confines. And that, ultimately shows that there's more to language than who says it, or whether it can be said (the first amendment clears that up), but at the core is whether it should be said at all.


Author: Keisha Allisse
Keisha is a freelance writer currently living in New York City. She formerly worked in the nonprofit sector for a walking/biking advocacy group and then later for a small theater company. She worked in the finance department of a NYC-midtown based theater organization before leaving to pursue writing full-time.
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