Saturday, February 28, 2009

The N-Word Conundrum

*** The video above is satire***

One group of people can say it. That's it. Seems a bit unfair.

The relevant question about that is, does it even matter? There is much debate about whether this word is open for use among non-African American races. When it comes to this topic, there are basically three groups of people/ideals:

1) We, as humans and linguists (most times they're one in the same), give words their power. Therefore, the word itself isn't as important as the context in which the word is used. In short, it's all in the intention. Richard Pryor sought to use this word every chance he got because he felt this way. (It must also be noted that he later renounced his usage of the word after a trip to Africa. Oddly, other comedians followed suit and retarded their usage because of social irresponsibility.) Many rappers and comedians who support usage of this word typically fall in this category. This doesn't exclude the word as harmful in all cases. Just in the cases where it is meant to hurt.

2) Words are inherently powerful. Calling someone an "idiot" is unkind no matter how it is used. These type of people are the linguistic fundamentalists; context has no place among this crowd, and it is extremely important to say what exactly you mean. Some would call this crowd sensitive. This group would counter by saying that "that there are too many words in the English lexicon to not find the appropriate word to convey the exact meaning". Many elitists and wordsmiths reside in this group.

3) The N-Word is off limits to anyone other than Black folks! End of discussion.

We all know people of all three categories, but the third is by far the most popular among Black folk. Why is this? I've always been dubious that we can use it so liberally, but will be ready to throw down at anyone else for using it. This never made sense to me. Either use it and let others use it with impunity, or not use it at all.

(Of course, there is a history behind this word. Of that, I am fully aware. That's all the more reason to be dubious at our usage of it towards one another. That's like a child being called, say, a brat by his parents and aunts and grandparents. In a mean-spirited way too. All during his childhood, he's an evil brat. Brat. Brat. Brat. He gets older, becomes a teenager, and predictably comes to resent being called that four letter word. He then in turn, calls his siblings a brat. And his friends. And his cousins, with the same conviction (meanness) that his superiors used towards him. He is now grown and still routinely calls his peers "brats". But when his parents say it to him, he gets pissed and finally has the power to tell them off ("Stop calling me that!"). Yet, the next day, he's still calling people b---s. And the next time his parents say it to him, he lets them have it. Does this make sense to you? Didn't think so.)

I, personally, adhere more to the first category. To me, context is the most significant factor in determining the impact of a word or phrase. The more specific an insult is, the more harmful/powerful it is. Telling an African American person, "you are stupid and you will never amount to anything in life" is infinitely more poignant than calling that person a "nigger". Unless it's from a person who isn't Black. Then it takes on a new dimension, considering the emotional connection that the word has on the African American psyche. Coming from other races, it is a word that reinforces inferiority and prior subjugation. African Americans do not have a monopoly on racial epithets hurled at them. All races have their tales of distasteful epithets (Jews don't like being called "kikes", Polish people are not "pollacks", "Chinks" have no place in the description of Chinese people, and so on). What makes this word much more explosive, in this country anyway, is the freshness and effrontery of damaging stereotypes with regard to Black people in mass media.

Luckily for us, the above clip is strictly satire. Finding a replacement word isn't the answer. Substituting a new word for the term is akin to putting deodorant on over must. The stench is still there, underneath the Secret and Right Guard that is varnished all over it.