The most powerful and offensive word in the English language is nigger. It is so offensive that most people are not supposed to say it when referencing it, but instead are supposed to call it “the n-word.” By attaching this stigma, we enable “nigger” to retain much of its power. If we truly want to progress as a society — to move forward to perhaps one day live in a post-racial society — we must remove this stigma and others like it.
The word “neger” was first documented in America in 1619 to describe African slaves being brought over to work in the Americas. However, it had no negative connotations until the 1900s and was considered the appropriate term for dark-skinned peoples until the mid to late 1800s. The stigma attached to the word grew as it became less acceptable to even say, much less direct it at a person.
In the ’70s and ’80s, “nigger” or “nigga” had an amazing resurgence in usage. The difference was the people using it — the word was predominantly used among young black people. It was rebranded and became a term of endearment at times. This movement reduced the stigma attached to the word and acted as a way to both recognize the history of black people in America and to move past that history. It is now extremely common for black people to refer to one another in this way, perhaps because, as Princeton University professor Cornel West says, “there’s a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say cat, companion or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people.”
But this movement did not follow through completely. The stigma remains for anyone who isn’t considered black enough. The O.J. Simpson murder trial brought this taboo to light, as detective Mark Fuhrman was consistently quoted in the media using “the n-word.” The implications of such a decision are obvious. Major media corporations preferred to report the news less accurately rather than risk printing the actual term.
To understand this stigma, we must understand why it exists. Why am I, a white person, expected to say “the n-word”? The most common explanation is that hearing a white person say the actual word brings to mind painful memories for black people, who may have had ancestors who were slaves. However, this explanation and the reasoning behind it strike me as false. If we avoid saying the word out of fear of being offensive, why do we avoid saying the word when there are only white people around, too? The reason we avoid saying the word isn’t because it reminds black people of their ancestors. The reason we avoid saying the word is because of the residual white guilt for what our ancestors did — enslave an entire race on the basis of supposed racial superiority. We seek to deny the notion that slavery happened by refusing to say the word. Avoiding history is an excellent way to someday repeat it. The white guilt that causes this reluctance is also suspect. It is foolish to hold ourselves responsible for the actions of our ancestors — white people today are no more slave masters than black people today are slaves.
This dichotomy between who can and cannot say the word has created a certain reverse racism. Quentin Tarantino has been criticized throughout his career for his use of the word, most recently in the film “Django Unchained,” which is set in the 1800s, when the word was colloquial and the accepted term for black people. His response to such criticism gets to the heart of the matter: “As a writer, I demand the right to write any character in the world that I want … I demand the right to tell the truth … I would not be questioned if I was black and I resent the question because I’m white.” Tarantino asserted that it is not only the fundamental right of the writer, but it is also the fundamental right of being human to tell the truth.
To remove the stigma attached to the word “nigger,” we must be able to say it. When I say we, I mean everyone. I am not advocating for the casual use of the word. I do not want to call my black friends “nigga” no matter how rhythmically seductive it might be. I want to be able to discuss the word without continuously saying the n-word, to sing along with the numerous songs that use the word without worrying who might judge me. The idea that only certain people can say certain words is ridiculous. Samuel L. Jackson commented on the criticism of Tarantino by saying, “Black artists think they are the only ones allowed to use the word. Well, that’s bull.”
By never saying the word “nigger,” we allow it to retain power. It is even more hurtful to be called by that name precisely because it is so uncommon to hear a white person say it. Further, by expecting people to use euphemisms like “the n-word,” “n*gg*r” or “n—–,” we are being intellectually dishonest. Such words deny a part of history that has had an undeniable impact on shaping American culture. So get used to hearing nigger. When I pitched this column, multiple people in the room flinched at the word. Giving such power to a random collection of noises is outrageous. We cannot ignore words we don’t like and hope they will go away and no longer be hurtful. To remove the power of the word, we must say it frequently enough so that it is no longer a shock to hear. Once we have a truly collective language then we can truly be a collective society.
Ian Mark is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]