Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Nigger


I come from an era in which the word was not used in any context, even when quoting someone.  It is still a word whose full spelling is avoided, so that one encounters “the n-word” or “n*****” frequently.  We feel the mere use of the word dirties our lips or our eyes, even if we are only referencing the word to condemn it.  There is a magical attachment, similar to Indo-Europeans referring to the totemic bear as the Brown One or the Honey Eater, or the refusal of the Israelites to pronounce the primary name of God aloud.  I wrote about the power of words in the context of foul language in a conversation at Avebury years ago. The takeaway point from that is that language and the power of words changes.

I completely get it.  I very much doubt I have ever typed the word nigger, or ever said it aloud, though I may have in the context of Mark Twain of Joseph Conrad.  I will be hesitating before I hit “post” I think. I just react viscerally to the word,

The acceptability of words changes, and I would cite crap and fart (another word I don’t think I have uttered or typed) as evidence. The latter was a schoolboy word when I was young, and only coarser schoolboys at that.  Adults or girls who used it marked themselves as low.  I still hate it.  Yet I felt the same way about crap at one point, but have become inured to its use now. We say never-never-never but fifty years later, never has arrived.

Use of the word nigger was a mark of not only bigotry but stupidity.  Not only were you prejudiced, but you weren’t picking up the social cue that we just don’t say that anymore. The milder insult nigra has completely vanished, I think.  It was more Southern and rural – hence unfashionable – and not electrifying enough to be picked up by black people in irony*. My grandmother was a prejudiced person, but she would never have uttered the word nigger because of its inelegance. I did once hear my mother-in-law say “we used to call that nigger pink.” But she was from NJ, so what do you expect?

When rap and hip-hop music became popular there was a great deploring of young black men using the word nigger so freely, as it was felt to be ceding captured territory back to the bigots. Whether hip-hop was the cart or the horse doesn’t matter for this discussion. We winced at the magic power of the word to induce bad things into the speakers and hearers. We had taken the general frequency of the word as one measure of our society’s racism: less use of nigger equals less racism.  Its readoption by young black men screwed up the measuring. (Note: the word had had continuous usage in the older black community in nonaffectionate reference to other blacks, as in “those niggers downtown are gonna get themselves in trouble with that,” or “that’s one stupid nigger.”  I wonder how much of the subtext of young urban blacks taking on the term for themselves and each other was an in-your-face to older respectable blacks as well as to white society.  It’s a pretty clear statement of “I’m dangerous.  I might do bad things.  Fear me.”)

All this in introduction to the idea that there has been a recent change in the force of the word nigger.  While there is likely regional and class variation, I think we can see that there is not much difference in how people over 30 hear the word. But I think I am detecting differences at age 25 and especially, younger than 20.  Who gets to say what and in what context remain the dominant forces for usage.  Yet I think those contexts are expanding in the young. Young white boys call each other niggah. The ground is different now.

I don’t call it a trend, as I have no idea where it goes from here.  But I hear discussions with football players about what has been said in the Incognito/Martin texts and other locker-room talk, and the older players – Cris Carter, Herm Edwards – are not saying the same things about it that the current players are.  NFL careers are generally short, and locker rooms young: average age under 25 in training camp, not much over during the season. Cris Carter is in clear “Dad” territory to 90% of NFL players, and Herm Edwards has moved into “Grandad” territory for rookies. My ears are theirs.  I cannot imagine not hyperventilating a bit over the word nigger.  But that’s my generation and it’s automatic.

But I think it's changing.


*Yes, the difference between negro, nigra, and nigger could be seen as merely dialectical and pronunciation differences, were one trying to explain it to a person whose first language is not English.  But it’s a great example of how such small differences can matter greatly. Think of how many of these small but enormous differences must have been lost in translating the Bible after a century or so.

33 comments:

Larry Sheldon said...

There is a piece of this that has long bothered me a great deal.

When I was little (50 or 60 years ago) I was taught that there was three kinds of people: Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro.

Then there was a great hue and cry about the word "Negro" which transmogrified through "negroid" and "colored" and I don't remember what else to today's "black" (or is it "Black"?).

I don't remember that much attention to the folks from the east, most of whom have NO roots in Mongolia, of my kind that have not known roots to Russia.

And I long wondered how some of the others felt, like the white people from Peru (r. g. George Zimmerman) or the people from Hawaii, some of whom have roots in Japan, some from right there, some from somewhere south.

And then there was the other axis: female and male. Now we have more kinds on that axis than we have on the other.

I think we are ready for quantum physics in everyday life--it is going to take an 11-dimensional matrix to figure out which toilet to use.

Dubbahdee said...

I see what you see, AVI.

Had a fascinating conversation recently with a new acquaintance; A white woman married to black man. She told a story of her young son (now in his late 20s). She was called into the elementary school office over a kerfuffle because one boy called her son a nigger. It was affectionate, between friends, a uncommon choice of epithet used in a common type of boyhood communication. Bottom line, the only one who had a problem with it was the school administration.

I felt a little stunned by the story. While I appreciate the outcome, like you, I couldn't fathom the ease with which it was handled. Because I am not clear about the rules of context that make the use of the word OK, I simply steer way clear.

Oh, and this was in NH some 15 years ago.

BTW - I love the image of "quantum physics for everyday life." I may appropriate that phrase at some point.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

I've only spelled it out once on the internet in reference to research on what people google. It turns out West Virginians google it a lot - big surprise.

It's a bit of a dilemma. You either use it and offend Black people or you don't use it which amounts to jumping through hoops for PC liberals.

terri said...

or you don't use it which amounts to jumping through hoops for PC liberals.

I'd call that reasoning your own projection. Many more people than PC liberals wouldn't want people to use that word and not using that word isn't simply appeasement for PC liberals.

I don't like the word, wouldn't use the word, and wouldn't encourage anyone to use the word.

As far as young people using the word...I think its a particular subset of young people who use it without meaning it in its most offensive sense, as a derogatory term for a black person. Those young people are also from the same demographic of young people, women specifically, who call each other bitch/slut/whore in a not "real" sense of the word. They do it, in their own minds at least, in an "endearing" way between friends.

Also something I personally don't like and would never encourage.

It's one of those "haha...I don't really mean it, so it's funny!" kind of things. Eventually though, someone gets tired of it, or it's said with a little too much edge on it or in a moment of uncertain tension between people and then it's not funny anymore...it's now the opening shot of a war.

Insult humor, sarcasm, ribbing between friends....there's always that moment when someone goes just a little too far past the line and suddenly all those "jokes" aren't funny anymore and someone's left wondering if the other person really meant the things they've said ...even just a little.

terri said...
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Donna B. said...

I'd amend your first sentence to say "from an era and area". Though the area where we grew up was different by 1000s of miles, the era was the same.

Or did you mean where we came of age rather than where we grew up? If I have your history right, you went to Virginia after high school. I went from Colorado to E Texas when I was 16. The huge difference is not those miles from the SW to the NE, but the fact that I was raised by parents from the western portion of the South -- one set of my grandparents were sharecroppers. The other set owned their land... but were no better off.

So, the equivalent word I grew up with was "spic". It was never innocuous. Always an insult. And... as far as I know, it still is. Someone more attuned to cultural issues might enlighten me there.

But, since my parents took me back to visit E Texas and SW Arkansas at least once a year, I heard references to blacks (my now preferred reference word, since it so neatly parallels whites) mostly as "nigras". If this was intended as an insult by the whites I heard use the word, the insult was lost on me. If insult was intended, "nigger" was used.

"Nigra" was used the same way "Mexican" was used in SW Colorado during those years. It was a descriptive more than a note of class or insult.

My mother (a white southern sharecropper's daughter) declared a moratorium on both words well before Kennedy and Nixon debated. We were politically correct before it became fashionable.

All that intro info to say that I agree with terri on this. I think she is right when she compares it to women referring "affectionately" to each other as "sluts" or "whores".

While in some cases there may actually be some affection between the parties, there is also an underlying criticism every time such a term is used.

I also realize that each of these terms is graded on a system that is known only to the users. I know no woman who would use the term "slut" or "whore" and mean it endearingly. And I sure don't mean it that way if I use it (which I don't think I ever have... seriously, I don't think I've ever referred to another woman as a "slut". "Whore" is a different matter, because... well, if the shoe fits... ohnevermind).

But "bitch" is different. Somewhere, somehow, during my upbringing, that word was allowed to mean a good thing as well as bad.

I think it stems from behaviors that good girls were once not allowed to engage in... I could be wrong. And I suspect that a similar excuse is given for the use of 'slut' and 'whore' but I see distinct differences in meaning. IOW, it's OK to be bitchy, but it's never OK to be a whore or to be slutty (outside the marital bedroom).

OMG -- I've just outed myself as an uptight white woman, haven't I?

Oh well... if the shoe fits.

HMS Defiant said...
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terri said...

Nigger is a perfectly good word and its meaning is clear and uncorrupted by time or distance.

Please, enlighten me. Tell me how you use the word and what it means...seeing as it is such a good word with such a clear meaning.

terri said...

Donna,

I would never refer to another woman as a whore/slut either "endearingly" or otherwise....but kids these days...whaddareyagonnado?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, I'm not seeing an appropriate use for a lot of words, even if they are in the dictionary and have real meanings and everything! When referring to group members or descriptors of persons, connotation and history matters. Nigger means something more than just "black person." That language is complex, and there are ironic or surprising meanings is certainly true. That doesn't make all connotation illusory and unimportant.

Why am I attempting to explain this to a person so obviously unable to hear it?

paradigmo said...

"I'd call that reasoning your own projection. Many more people than PC liberals wouldn't want people to use that word and not using that word isn't simply appeasement for PC liberals."


While many others may dislike the word (myself included), my point is that appeasing PC people is a serious matter. The same people who insist you shouldn't use the word are also in favor of hate legislation in which a person is punished for their thoughts. That's Orwell's nightmare come alive. Here in Europe several countries forbid people to deny the Holocaust. Some people have spent time in jail for their views on history. I don't know if that upsets you but it sure upsets me, and that is why I'm very reluctant to play along and appease these conformists.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

Oops, paradigmo is me, Staffan. Not attempting sock puppetry.

Larry Sheldon said...
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Larry Sheldon said...

Twain was on to something--the language has different words to convey different meanings.

Some words a considered (by our mothers and their surrogates) to be rude and not to be used in proper company--some examples, if you will pardon my French: "shit", "fuck", and "nigger". To avoid such words is not to be "politically correct", it is to be "polite", "civil", "refined".

"Politically correct" is calling somebody whose blood-line has not left Jamaica in 6 generations an "African-American".

I for one do not think that race-political terms convey any useful information--"Black man born in Kingston" does not tell me anything incrementally more than "Man born in Kingston" does.

If you think it is important to include something about his genetic structure, why not be informative and say some thing like "Coromantee man born in Kingston"?

HMS Defiant said...
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HMS Defiant said...
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Texan99 said...

When I was growing up, the word simply was not used, not ever, not at home, not at school, and not in the neighborhood. The only time I ever ran into it was in movies about racism, like "To Kill a Mockingbird," where it was quite clear what one was to think of the user. Not even my farmer grandparents in North Carolina used it, and their homestead still contained the old slave quarters. Their tobacco workers were barely distinguishable from the cast of Gone with the Wind. It wasn't a PC thing, more a prohibition against vulgarity. I always took it to be a deliberate insult, one that was particularly loathsome because it was meant to be lodged at someone who couldn't fight back effectively. But I also didn't know anyone who was given to any sort of ethnic slur. Aggies were substituted for Polacks (or whatever) in the standard jokes. Wops? Kikes? Not in use.

I didn't grow up in a protected enclave, just an ordinary suburban development in Houston with a strong Jewish contingent, where the Jews were the upper class. The closest thing to a racial animus was the universal conviction, not dwelt on but always present, that you'd be better off dropping out of school than to be bused across town to attend a black one.

terri said...

para/staff

I don't think anyone should do jail time for "thought crimes". And, guess what...no one here in the USA is...with maybe the rare exception of a couple of people who created simulated child pornography...that's the only case I can think of where someone has been detained for purely mental activity.

That is a far cry from people not using a word that is, in its usual, common meaning, meant to be offensive and derogatory towards a particular group of people.

terri said...

I have more I want to say, but no time right now. I will comment later in the day.

staffanspersonalityblog said...

Terri,

My point is that the situation in Europe may differ simply because of the stronger influence of political correctness here. First they create a taboo, and once people accept that taboo, legislation will seem more reasonable. So the one is not a far cry from the other. More like gradual steps.

I'd also view hate crime as thought crime since you do time for what you did and then you do a little more for why you did it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

staffan, I may not understand the situation in Europe, and there may be insistence and punishments that I would not approve of - and would fear to see become part of our culture - that I just don't see.

I think you shouldn't use the word, and am happy to criticise and look down on anyone who does, yet I am not "in favor of hate legislation in which a person is punished for their thoughts." So you are sounding a bit overreactive to me there.

As for HMS Defiant reasoning that the word is acceptable for use because its meaning is clear, I contest that. The meaning is not clear to me. You are claiming that it only insults, and I would counter that the intent is to challenge and degrade as well. Therefore your argument doesn't hold on its own merits. Not strong enough.

Secondly, your attitude seems to be that it is worse to not say the word nigger, simply because some people who tell you not to say that also believe some related bad things, and are more likely to support forbidding you. Or something. That seems an adolescent and truculent "I will say it simply to defy them" attitude. Unless of course it is your intent to harm or to challenge. If that is your aim I might applaud your clarity even as I deplore your immorality. (And your wisdom). Cruelty is a real evil.

The word has no use as a mere descriptor. Save those modern usages in which people use it ironically, it always carries an intent to harm. Balancing the harm done to another by insult versus the harm done to me by societal limitations on my speech is easy. Standards of speech are a normal part of every society and I can easily absorb quite a bit of it. It is perhaps a limitation on my freedom that I cannot defecate where I please, but I can put up with that.

Whether the word will have only an ironic, and thus mild and even affectionate meaning in fifty years I don't know.

Texan99 said...

Decades ago I was visiting New York City as a young woman. Standing in line at some ticket office or another, I heard a man snarl "Schwartze," in apparent irritation at something a black customer or ticket agent had done. There was a lot of ugliness packed into that snarl, enough to make me recoil. In my innocent youth, I'd never heard anything like it.

It's not just a descriptor. It's a manifesto, a threat, a vomit of hatred. The exact word isn't the point, only its use and intent.

Which is not to say I have any use for hate-crime legislation or speech restraints. I'm talking about standards we should apply to ourselves. I'm no lady--I have no problem with spectacularly vulgar language when I'm in company that won't be offended--but this is a style of language I can't bear to let myself use even with someone who has made me very angry. If I must excoriate with words, I prefer vocabulary that refers to what people have done, not with language that dehumanizes a category identified by birth.

Dubbahdee said...

This whole discussion has applications to the other discussion on Bibliolatry. The layered nature of words, the way they are merely a pattern of sound waves, the way they are so much more than that.

Texan99 hits something here although I don't know if she would say it this way. Words carry spiritual power, for good and evil. They incarnate ideas that both draw from and reach deeper into something quite other from the world of atoms and mere physical forces.

Yet if we only perceive the sound waves only, the spiritual power might elude us -- or we might ignore it.

This bears meditation.

Texan99 said...

Words express a meaning, and it's not always something as simple as "there's an apple there on the table." This word also often means "I assert the right to cut you out of the human race." To me, it's like a burning cross, which is not just a shape that happens to be on fire but a well-defined threat with a rich and specific context.

I say this as someone who has less than zero patience with the dysfunction of American black culture or with most exhortations to cultural sensitivity. I think some cultures absolutely stink and can't be undermined soon enough.

I have no problem at all with the jocular use that leads people to enter a room making joking gang gestures and shouting "Whassup, niggas?" But the truth is, I can't make that joke myself. It has to be left for younger people who aren't burdened with my baggage. I'd have to say "Whassup, bitchezzz?" instead.

HMS Defiant said...
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Texan99 said...

The circumlocution of "n-word" has its own special meaning, which is "I'm referring indirectly to an ugly insult--not just a descriptive word--and signaling that I disapprove of the insult and would not wish to level it at anyone, or accord it any respect by repeating it out loud, or join the ranks of anyone vulgar and hateful enough to use it." It has the additional advantage of triggering less of the emotional reaction that the full word inevitably triggers in a listener.

I might feel the same about "wops" and "kikes" if I could remember which ethnic group they were intended to insult, and if the pain inflicted on those groups were more integral to my own experience. Instead, those words are merely sounds to me. Even so, I'd be careful about throwing them around in any group that might contain people who'd been victimized by that sort of trashy thinking and behavior.

terri said...

I was going to come back and comment yesterday...but it seems AVI, Texan, and Dubbah have already covered just about everything I would have wanted to say! :-)

terri said...
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Assistant Village Idiot said...

HMS Defiant. Your comment came to my email, even though you deleted it here. I misread you and I apologise.

Yes, reporting is a different context. News outlets are likely to say something like "Called him the n-word," which is a bit evasive, almost childish. I might choose to say "used a racial slur" instead of "called him a nigger" for reasons Texan99 explains, but the circumlocution n-word does have carry some silliness with it. I'd rather have silliness than insult, generally, but point taken.

Texan99 said...

I agree, "racial slur" is better, and is what I generally use. "N-word" has a silliness about it, as if it were important to identify the specific racial slur. On the other hand, it's not too much different from saying "f-bombs," to communicate how rude someone is being without seeming quite so rude oneself.

In old novels, it was usually considered enough to say -----.

paul zimmerli said...

I've been married to a black woman for 41 years. I have heard the word spoken in jest; as an uncomplimentary description of someone (black-on-black); and dripping with vitriol.

Two weeks ago, I was in the restroom of a McDonald's in Duncan, OK (Yes, the one where the black youths murdered the Australian baseball player because they had nothing else to do.), when two early-20's whites came in. One made the comment, "Man, there's niggers everywhere in here! This country is going to hell so fast..."

Now, there was a black woman on the cash register. There was a black man around back hosing off some food pallets. There was my wife, and my 8-year-old, legally-white granddaughter (since both her grandfather and father are white). And the restaurant was packed with whites and a few Native Americans.

So, I dried my hands, turned up my oxygen bottle, took my star-spangled cane, and turned around and told them, "And one of those is my wife, and one is my granddaughter." Now, I'm in my mid-60s, a totally disabled veteran, and either could have taken me without breaking a sweat. But the one who made the statement immediately apologized profusely - and you could tell he felt bad about it.

I told him it was clear he'd never been in his country's service - which he admitted - because if he had, he'd know that one of those "niggers" might be the one to give his life to save his - or that he might do the same to save the other's life. I told him he needs to look at the person - not the stupid labels that allow us to dismiss others so casually.

After a couple of more apologies, I left out, telling them to think about what I'd said...

With Duncan in my rear-view mirror, I reflected that the same endemic prejudice was likely the cause of the young Australian's death. Not to excuse the murderers - far from it!

But, blacks are so few in Duncan - and stared at wherever they go - that the young killers very likely really didn't have anywhere to go or anything to do... And, they could only look forward to a hopeless lifetime of menial jobs if they stayed there.

So, yes. If someone uses the term, don't obfuscate it with "a racial slur." I want to know they used the word - and in what context and with what emotion. Then, I'll decide how offensive it was.

Texan99 said...

Thank you, Paul, for standing up. I suppose the chances are good those numbskulls were just spouting venom they'd barely thought about. It sounds like being confronted with a real human being made them think twice, so maybe there's some hope for them. They weren't far enough gone to transfer their hostility to you. Where there is still shame, there's hope.

Dubbahdee said...

We at AVI are not the only ones having this conversation.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/opinion/sunday/coates-in-defense-of-a-loaded-word.html?_r=0

So, words change meaning, because context.