Stop Policing the N-Word

4 minute read
John McWhorter is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University.

Many people are uncomfortable that Larry Wilmore joshingly addressed President Barack Obama as “my nigga” at the White House Correspondents Dinner on Saturday night. It’s indicative that Obama showed no signs of minding. Words change—and ones referring to race are not somehow exceptions to that.

For example, the word “holiday” comes from “holy day.” Yet we don’t find it odd that holidays like the Fourth of July, Arbor Day and Valentine’s Day don’t involve any especially religious observances. Today we also most readily think of “wit” as intelligent humor, which came from the earlier meaning “knowledge.” Yet we don’t insist that calling someone “witty” is the same as saying that someone uses their “wits”—even though the two words sound exactly the same. And did you know that “hussy” started out as “housewife”?

The N-word is also two words with two different meanings. “Nigger” is a slur used against black people. “Nigga” is a word that developed from “nigger,” but has a different pronunciation and also a different meaning. “Nigga” means “buddy.” To insist that to say “nigga” is the same thing as saying “nigger” is like saying that “holiday” is to say “holy day,” or that “hussy” is to say “housewife.”

Obviously black men are not using a slur against each other; they’re using the word as a sign of affection (and have since at least the 1800s). It seems to me that young non-black men are increasingly comfortable using the word with one another.

There are those who insist that because of the especially ugly nature of the word “nigger” itself, we must not allow even its descendant, “nigga,” to be used. Some, like Jabari Asim, hope to police a fragile line, where black men can use it but no other men can. Others wish black men wouldn’t use it, either. However, these proposals have little likelihood of success. I have agued myself that policing language prevents needed discourse. Calling someone a “nigger” is no longer socially acceptable, and shouldn’t be. But trying to outlaw the way people say “buddy” in their most comfortable moments is a futile exercise.

Overall, language policing is always difficult, and usually only has an effect when the rules are of clear and useful intention. Outlawing a slur is one thing. Pretending that a different word that sounds like it is the same one and insisting no one use it will never attract a consensus.

In the same way, we must make a difference between using “nigger” as a slur and merely referring to it, which is different.

For example, on Sunday Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams tweeted: “Django Unchained: a Ballymurphy Nigger!” Ballymurphy was where British paratroopers killed Northern Ireland civilians in 1971. Adams was roasted for “using the N-word.” However, the accusation is almost willfully tone-deaf. He used “nigger” with the implication that the dismissive status associated with the word was being applied by others. This is a sentiment in identification with the oppressed, not against them. To assail Adams for “using the N-word” here is exploiting the urgency of genuine social change—such as preventing people using the N-word as a weapon—in order to merely beat people over the head out of a Nietzschean kind of self-righteousness.

These days, many seem to think that the intent of the person using the N-word is less important than the offense taken by the hearer. But there are times when hearers might reconsider the offense they are taking, especially because language submits only reluctantly to policing.

Let’s police the use of the N-word as a slur, but not a word that started from it but now means “friend,” and not people only talking about, rather than using it. This practice will be not only just, but will have a chance of working out.

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