“Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
This little mantra was something that was taught in elementary school, back in the day. It was a way of explaining to children that one shouldn’t get into fights simply due to verbal insults that others may hurl. However, it misses the point that words can and do cause harm. Yet, I do agree with its point of avoiding violence as a means to settle an issue. Recent events in the world of Pro-Football have caused me to think more about certain words – (well one word in particular) – and how they hurt. I’m sure anyone that follows Pro-Football and perhaps many that don’t; have become at least passingly familiar with the situation surrounding Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito, and Incognito’s alleged use of the “N-word.”
Among the comments that readers leave on articles about the story, are questions asking why is it “OK” for African Americans to use the “N-word,” but it’s not OK for others to do so. I’ve seen comments where readers have mentioned that the “N-word” has been used as a term of “endearment.” I’ve read comments where there is some attempt to make a distinction about the pronunciation of the “N-word,” that using the “er” sound is different than using the “ah” sound at the end. This is as if it’s similar to pronouncing “fifty” as “fid-dey”. One is stylized and perhaps sounds cool to some and the other is just plain, proper English.
But does the actual meaning change?
In recent times, a notion has developed that we can “remove the power” of the “N-word” by using it openly and not treating it as a taboo. Following that line of reasoning, perhaps all African Americans should also consider displaying the Confederate Flag in their homes and on their vehicles. I find it incredible that a pejorative such as the “N-word” could ever remotely be considered a “term of endearment.” But it does underscore the skill with which the word has been woven into the fabric of our society. It’s become ubiquitous – it’s like when someone wants bleach – most people ask for “Clorox”, or when you want facial tissue – it’s “give me a Kleenex.”
As to why African Americans use the “N-word” in reference to ourselves, I’m sure there are tons of books out there written by people who are far more qualified than me, to provide some analysis. I was born at the height of the civil-rights movement. And as a child of the 70’s, the word was hurled at me, and for a time I hurled it at others. It was part of the environment. It was ubiquitous. That didn’t make it right then, and it doesn’t make it right now.
In my view, the real problem with the use of the “N-word”, and my issue with those who believe that you can “take the power” away from the word by using it is this: Far beyond whatever meaning is ascribed to the word for its utility as an insult, is the issue of institutionalized racism which provides the actual power. And until this institutionalized and systemic racism is defeated, there is no removing the “power” from the “N-word”.
So, to my Caucasian friends who may wonder why it’s not OK to use the word when they hear other African Americans do so – this requires attempting to understand “white privilege” through the lens of an African American. There has been no pejorative designed that can be hurled at a White American that comes anywhere close to being as pernicious and demeaning as the “N-word,” because it’s a question of the power that underpins the pejorative. This power creates an undeniable reality that provides substance to the insult. If one were to call someone a “piker” or an “obsequious toad” – it would in most cases be considered insulting, but one could dismiss it on any number of levels because there probably isn’t a power or system involved to designate one as such or to remind you of your place and why such a word has an air of legitimacy.
The “N-word” on the other hand carries the legacy of slavery, the legacy of a people that were deemed three-fifths human. The reality of incarceration rates that are about double that of Whites who commit the same offenses as African Americans. Stop and frisk policies and racial profiling. The list goes on. In my view the word should be retired from everyone’s vocabulary along with the institutionalized and systemic racism that goes with it. The cynic in me says that it will never happen, but the dreamer in me waits for the day when it can become reality.