A Note On The Word ‘Nigger’

Here’s an interesting essay by Randall Kennedy, Professor of Law at Harvard:

The term has been put to other uses. Some blacks, for instance, use “nigger” among themselves as a term of endearment. But that is typically done with a sense of irony that is predicated upon an understanding of the term’s racist origins and a close relationship with the person to whom the term is uttered. As Clarence Major observed in his Dictionary of Afro-American Slang (1970), “used by black people among themselves, [nigger] is a racial term with undertones of warmth and goodwill – reflecting…a tragicomic sensibility that is aware of black history.” Many blacks object, however, to using the term even in that context for fear that such usage will be misunderstood and imitated by persons insufficiently attuned to the volatility of this singularly complex and dangerous word.

It’s the final sentence of that passage, the one I have highlighted in bold,  that has me wondering whether a young lady who uttered the word and at the time seemed to be  motivated more by alcohol and adolescent stupidity rather than any malicious intent, should have been ejected from a television show.

Kennedy’s words are particularly poignant because we are, increasingly, living in a society where black performers in the music industry are using the word “nigger” so increasingly, it seems to permeate rap and hip hop music to the point that it is used so frequently in lyrics it’s become totally ubiquitous. It no longer seems to matter what the etymology of the word actually is … it’s become part of popular culture.

For example …

I love the artist Sissel, I think she has one of the most amazing voices I have ever heard. I remember not too long ago my younger brother was listening to a song in his car, he’s into rap and hip hop music – I’m not. The song had a good beat but there was nothing particularly great about it, unti Sissel starts singing the chorus in this glorious operatic voice that works so well with the beat. I listen to the song a lot, it has a permanent fixture in my On-The-Go play list on my iPod.  So what’s the point I’m making? Here’s the video for the song … I want you to count the number of times Warren G uses the word “nigger” and also count the number of times the word “fuck” is bleeped out – and explain to me why one is censored but the other is perfectly acceptable?

I noticed that a spokesman for the Commission for Racial Equality commented on the Big Brother incident by stating: “whichever way you look at it using the ‘n’ word is offensive”.  Well to that spokesman I would say if its that offensive shouldn’t we all stop using it?  ( personally I think the most racist organisation in Great Britain is The Commission for Racial Equality, but that’s a whole different rant!).

I think that when words, not matter how offensive, are hijacked by popular culture, their meaning becomes skewed and this results in confusion. When is it ok to use the word nigger? Is it only black’s who should be allowed to use it? If its not ok then why should I have to hear it every time I listen to a rap song, or a hip hop song? Why should I have to see it on the screen when I play Grand Theft Auto?

If the meaning of a word has become confused then surely the context and the intent with which the word is used should be what is used to determine whether we label the one using it as racist.