Contextual Example of Racial Epithets: Specifically the "N-Word"

This week’s assignment in my Literature class was to write an argument for the value of structural criticism when applied to American-specific terms. It turned out I didn’t quite hit the target here, but I did meet the requirements of the assignment, which leads me to—what do you call a doctor who graduates with a D? “Doctor”

This subject occurred to me because I live in Phoenix, AZ (a current hotbed for illegal immigration and racial undertones), and grew up in the FL Panhandle, not too far from the Redneck Riviera. I married a Mexican immigrant and have learned from her point of view what it is like to be part of a minority group in America. Finally, I am also a convert to Judaism and more aware of racial inequalities, and have personally dealt with matters that reek of anti-Semitism. Specifically though, I am interested in the use of the “N-Word”. It is intriguing because the context of its use makes all the difference if, and when, it can be used, and by whom.

This epithet has shifted dramatically just in the last 50 years. It was once commonly used by whites as a pejorative term in public conversation. Today, it is still used commonly, but now by the black community, and especially in the media. The NY Times published a lengthy article in January ’93 titled “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Nigger’ Fires Bitter Debate”[1] describing the increased usage of the word by the black community, the reasons for it, and the impacts it has made. Even though the article is nearly 20 years old, it is as relevant today as it was then because it asks questions for which we are still seeking answers.

There are two main arguments: 1. A more common use by the black community will defuse the negativity of the word and make it powerless. 2. Pulling the word into mainstream use, especially within a white-dominant mainstream, will not defuse its negativity, but will keep it as a reminder of the racism and pain caused to the community by whites.

Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr even pulls the historical use of the word into a then (and now) modern context when he says, “We cannot let that term be trivialized,” … We cannot let that term be taken out of its historical context.” [2] Kris Parker (KRS-One), thought however that its use, “through black culture’s ability to affect popular American culture through the electronic media, ‘nigger’ will be de-racialized by its broader use and become just another word.” [3]

Rev. Chavis’s argument believes the word needs to keep its original, hurtful meaning so that it is not forgotten. As a Jew, (another term that has its own challenges within and without certain contexts) I can appreciate this argument. It is important to remember where you came from—the good and the bad—so that you know where you need to go.

Kris Parker’s argument, while wildly hopeful, suggests that removing it from its historical context and placing it into an entirely new context will improve American society as a whole. As a fan of rap & hip-hop, I’ve struggled with my own familiarity with the term. While I have black friends that do not care about its use, I do not use it around them out of respect and my own awareness of its historical context. At the same time, I have picked out nuances of its use within the black community. In its own setting, the word can have positive or negative uses.

I believe that today, the “N-Word” sits somewhere in the middle ground of its evolution. Comedians like Dave Chappelle have challenged its use to the point of ridiculousness. His controversial skit, “Black White Supremacist” pushes the use of this word where he plays a blind, black, white supremacist—and a major leader and spokesman for the KKK and other white supremacists. [4] His show was popular, but short-lived, as he believed his work was not being portrayed in the kind of thoughtful satire he thought valuable, but was only being used to reinforce stereotypes and racial differences. Dave Chappelle pushed racial boundaries by exposing them for their true ridiculousness, but even he doubted the effectiveness of his work believing it was exploited for financial gain.

I have a personal example of the word that really ties down the importance of context and meaning. While in the Navy I shared a barracks room with a white sailor from Arkansas. He was a proud redneck. I also shared the room with two black sailors. One weekend we were watching a movie together and couple of other black guys came into our room to hang out with us.

My white roommate, for reasons I do not recall other than his consumption of a lot of beer, started using “nigger” right and left, and not in the least bit complimentary of ways. There was a tense moment as I looked at my black roommates looking at him, and me started thinking like I need to do something or I’ll get associated with his racist sentiment. In addition, I have never believed in or practiced this type of speech.

Quickly I asked him if he knew what “nigger” meant. He replied no. To which I informed him that it meant ignorant, and because of his ignorance, he could technically be a nigger himself. Then I asked, “How do you feel about that—nigger?” In great delight, my guests and myself all started calling him a nigger and laughed as he found no response.

The complexity of this word is rich! Context, history, even literal definitions play into its use, acceptance, and scorn. While it appears that some progress has been made in stripping it of its historical meaning, it can never be completely removed from where it came. Even Eminem, a successful and widely accepted white rapper doesn’t use the “N-Word” in his music even though it’s use is prevalent. He recognizes a boundary and that its use is not required. This should tell us a lot about the importance of structuralism with this word.

[1] Marriott, Michael. “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Nigger’ Fires Bitter Debate.” 24 January 1993. New York Times.com. 25 June 2012 <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/24/nyregion/rap-s-embrace-of-nigger-fires-bitter-debate.html&gt;.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Chappelle, Dave. Black White Supremacist. 22 January 2003. 25 June 2012 <http://www.snotr.com/video/3726/Dave_Chappelle&gt;.

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