DON’T CALL ME A N**GER
...unless you’re a black comedian; an actor such as Samuel Jackson/Denzel Washington; one of my best friends; part of the ‘inner group’ (‘inner group’ being a group - gender, orientation or ethnic minority, etc, where there is an implicit and mutual understanding or experiences, and where ‘offensive’ words can be used with affection); or quoting something that has already been said. Actually, not necessarily even in the last case, which I will come to shortly. The bottom line is, that for many people this is possibly the worst, most offensive word in the English language, and has divided opinion as well as stimulated debate for decades, as to whether, if ever or how it can be used.
I was prompted to raise this topic as a contribution to this edition of Divercity, ‘Identity’, as I hope to provoke a wider discussion and thought about language and intent. We often get hung up on the words rather than the intent, which allows an offensive agenda to be disguised by articulate orators, authors, and politicians; and unintentional offence to be caused by someone unaware of how language has evolved in this area in particular, as well as life in general. This leads to another concern, because language and especially language around race and gender is dynamic. As such, there is an increasing fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ or addressing someone incorrectly.
This can fuel ‘diversity fatigue’, where people simply feel safer stepping outside of the debate... (“I’ve had enough of ‘Me Too’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, etc...when can we get back to normal?”). Or, at the other end of the spectrum, those trying to be sensitive fear attack for being “Woke”. To many people it feels like the fast paced evolution of language in the area of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and failure to keep pace, has often been used to “trip us up” or “catch us out” - ironically resulting in an exclusion rather than an inclusion - and pushing good intent away rather than pulling it in. The problem is not confined to race.I was struck by parallels in other areas when listening to a podcast by a gay man talking about the word ‘Queer’. He referenced the fact that (and I remember it well when grow- ing up) calling someone a ‘Queer’ was offensive to gay and straight men alike. Today, some but not all of the gay community have taken ownership of the word...indeed, in some cases proud ownership and identification. So it made me think, could the black community take owner- ship of the ’N-word’? Interestingly enough, some black entertainers (acting, music, comedy) have done just that, with the term peppered easily and often with pride and affection through their performances. In fact, it is sometimes used when addressing a wider and mixed audience, not just a black audience. A little bit like addressing a mixed group of sexual gender or orientation as “morning guys”.
In researching and preparing to write this, I learned about a white New York based female professor and novelist, Laurie Sheck, who was discussing with her class, the much acclaimed black author James Baldwin (one of the most celebrated black writers of the 20th century). The discussion was focused on a documentary about the author called “I am not your negro”. The documentary paid homage and indeed included part of an interview that Baldwin had given in 1963, where he used the expression “I am not your ’N**ger’”. Sheck asked the class to consider why the language had been adapted, and in doing so she repeated the phrase, “I am not your N**ger”. She was reported to the college by a white student and subsequently suspended pending investigation. So in this case, use of the word was unacceptable to some (class and college leadership), even when quoting it’s use by the man himself!!!
Now, I absolutely do not want to give licence to free use of the word...at least not without thought or consideration to the intent or how it will be received. But actually shouldn’t that be the case with all words, in fact all actions and behaviour?
On the English Law Society website, it states :- “There are a significant number of words, phrases and acronyms that appear when talking about race and ethnicity which often change depending on the context of the conversation. Language is continuously evolving. It’s important to understand the meaning behind the terms we use to address people and to keep updated and willing to refresh our language so we use appropriate and respectful terms.
It’s also imperative to remember that individuals will have their own particular preferences as to how they would describe themselves, and how they would wish to be described.
”The power of the ’N-word’ is undeniable and evidenced by the fact that it continues to generate wide- spread and passionate debate. In doing so, it may indirectly cause us to think about the use of words and language in general. As language continues to evolve, we are going to get it wrong sometimes. Sometimes just because we are not aware or fail to grasp the nuances that apply to different individuals. Acronyms, pronouns, nouns, are catching us by surprise constantly it seems. But, as we strive to be better people, there are of course going to be ‘growing pains’, and infinite media to track our failings.
Whether the ’N-word’ becomes part of main stream language is not ultimately what I want to provoke with this article, it is perhaps the fact that the most important word that we should not compromise on is