Sunday, July 20, 2008

What does the N-word mean?

Heck if I know. But I've learned that for many black people, it is ok for them to use the word nigger, but it means something else if a white person uses it. Prior to this week, I've rarely used the word in 50 years. It does not mean to me what some black people think it means when I say it or write it.



Words have different meanings to different people in different places. If you give someone a pop in Brooklyn that someone is going to get a black eye. Give someone a pop in Savannah and they will get a sweet and bubbly oral experience followed by a sugar rush.

Likewise, nigger has different meanings in different places, and has had different meanings at different times in human history. The same is true of the words cunt, fuck and dope.

Why is it offensive to say "nigger" but it is not offensive to say "n-word?"

Outrage over the use of certain words may change linguistic behavior, but it does nothing to foster better relations or racial harmony. On the contrary, listening to Whoopi and the fat chick (is it ok that I refer to someone as fat given that I am fat?) in The View video above, it seems to me that they are advocating a separate but equal culture. Whoopi insists we live in different worlds and that whites need to understand that. I understand that we have differences, but I don't understand how being in "different worlds" fosters better relations. Explain it to me. I want to understand.

I'm reminded of the time that I discovered that the word girl is an offensive term to some. As a young and stupid banker in the early 80's I made the mistake of referring to someone as a "smart girl." One of my female colleagues ripped me a new one and stormed out of the room. When she was a safe distance most of the rest of the group of young bankers, males and females, snickered. That made me feel better and helped me get over my embarrassment. I stopped using the word and stopped associating with that c-word.

In my experience inter-racial relationships are easy to establish. Like any relationship, giving respect before you get it and seeking common ground are key. Embracing each others differences is key. Humor helps too. One of my best business relationships is with a company that is 100% black. When I arrived for our first meeting at their location in a rough area of Newark there was an palpable tension present. I was buzzed in through a tight security system. One of the employees met me at the door and the owner of the company and several other employees were watching quietly and apparently nervously. The employee at the door said, "Mr. Gallagher?" I feigned surprise and said "How did you know it was me?" with a smile. Laughter replaced the nervousness, our business went very smoothly and has grown rapidly. The company refers me to others frequently.

We really aren't all that different. Being pissed off about what other people did in the past does not help us relate to each other now. I never give the indignities my Irish immigrant grandparents suffered a thought when relating to people today. I don't hold the indignity and enduring injuries a family member of mine experienced at the hands of a violent criminal who happened to be black against other black people. Why should I?

4 comments:

Hey, You said...

I think the N-word usage is not complicated. The reason blacks want to be able to use it but also want to get upset when whites use it is they want to control white behavior somewhere. It gives them a sense of power. "It's OK for me to do this but not OK for you to do this." Superiority, plain and simple.

Of course, they can't say that's the reason why, so they make up this garbage about "taking the word away from those using it against us." < eye roll >

We've managed to turn white people into second class citizens in the area of speech.

People often look for a reason to be outraged, it seems. That explains the woman being offended when you referred to a female as "girl." Now really, why would that be offensive to anyone, unless they had been told, "here's a good reason to get offended."

Outrage is mostly a tool used to control other people.

Anonymous said...

Today, the implied racism of the term and the shock effect of the word are so strong that the use of nigger can be used to deliberately cause offense and in most situations is taboo. Many American magazines and newspapers will not even print the word. It has been completely excised from the Microsoft Encarta dictionary. The New York City Council passed a resolution in 2007 that bans the use of the word and asks that songs including the word in their lyrics be excluded from consideration for a Grammy Award.

But again the word is often, maybe too often, used in a casual sense between friends or work colleagues of both white and mixed race e.g. "Wassup, my nigger" without meaning to, or indeed causing offence. And although Black, Aboriginal, or Polynesian people use the term to greet each other, it is not considered acceptable to use the term to a stranger or casual acquaintance. Modern variants such as nigga are used as a synonym for "person" in a controversial effort to reclaim the word for general use.

The word nigga as variant of nigger has been used self-referentially by many in the African American community, like a pronoun to refer to a black man. With the rise in popularity of rap and hip-hop, the term has become more widely used among some black youth and among some non-blacks as well. This new revisionist usage, particularly among non-blacks, has been the source of considerable controversy.

What non-blacks fail to understand is that historically the self-reference of the word began when slaves often exploited the weakness of racist arrogance by using the word “nigger” to their advantage, in the self- criticizing, deceptive maneuver of Tomming. Tomming or being called an “uncle-tom” is when a Black person is humiliatingly subservient or courteous and reverent to white people in an effort to advance themselves. Implicit was an unspoken reminder that a presumably inferior person could not reasonably be held responsible for work performed incorrectly or any similar offense. It was a means of deflecting responsibility in the hope of escaping the wrath of an overseer or master. Its use as a self-referential term was also a way to avoid suspicion and put whites at ease. A slave who referred to himself or another black as a "nigger" presumably accepted their subordinate role and posed no threat to the white “master” or authority.

Whether or not this “slave” mentality is still prevalent in today’s society, I cannot say, but it is time that everyone understand the history of this word and accept that it has no place in society today. Non-black people should not use it because of its implied racism, and blacks, today should find some other word or phrase to be casual amongst themselves with, because even in a self-referentially manner, that word still has an non-endearing history that we should leave as what it is, history.

Art Gallagher said...

Thank you Dwayne

Anonymous said...

The N-word is not acceptable. African Americans do not say "Nig.." they say "Nigga". Furthermore I've seen all races refer to them self or others as nigga. Referring to someone as nigga is not an African American "thing" it's a youth thing. The word nigga is used to take the power out of "Nigg.." take note that not all youths like to be called nigga. People use the word as a noun, for example I've seen people who refer to a male as a nigga or a person in general. To youth the word nigga doesn't hurt but the word nigger does. Furthermore I think if people are going to say the word nigga is bad they should also say the word "Jew" is bad. The word Jew was used in a negative way to refer to Jewish people. People try to say that it's just a "shorter" way to say Jewish. If that's the case why don't we call Japanese people "japs"? It's disappointing how some, not all people, contradict them self and don't even realize it.