October 06, 2005

On the N-Word: Using the term 'nigger'.

Oprah with the Cast of Crash An interesting debate about the power and usage of language developed on Oprah today. Her guests included the cast of the Crash, a movie that deals with racism and social perceptions. While discussing the movie and its contents it brought up an issue about the usage of the word 'nigger'. On one hand, Oprah argues that the term holds too much hurtful history and is still a term filled with negative power. On the other, Don Cheadle believes that the word can have its connotation changed to be a term of endearment and can be embraced with acceptance. While I have my own opinions on this debate, I'd rather explore their arguments in hopes of facilitating discussion on this topic. As mentioned, Oprah views the term as one with a nasty past and a negative connotation. No matter who is using the word, it only serves to fuel hatred and confusion. The hatred is fueled because those who still believe and perpetuate the nonsense associated with the past see the word being used by the black community and in their already skewed logic, believe the term is a free for all. The confusion is created because, as Don Cheadle argued, that while the term can be used amongst black aquaintances it is still not a term that other cultures should be using. This was probably the weakest and strangest argument from Cheadle who was otherwise seemingly prepared for such a 'debate'. However, Terrence Howard and Ludacris both seemed to support that same basic premise. Howard argued that he has no problem with his best friend, who he alluded to be caucasian, calling him 'nigga' and even admitted to even using towards his caucasian friend. Ludacris argued that the term was different anyway. That the term that has become popular is not niggER, but niggA. The change in the ending represented the changing attitude with the expression. Oprah shrugged that off by saying the word is the same no matter if it ends -er or -a. The core of Cheadle's position was not the above but rather that through effort and acceptance, the connotation can be changed. The result, hopefully, would be that the word would lose its negative power and I assume for future generations the word would hold a new, more positive meaning. The above argument aside, the idea is simple. By having close-knit groups using the word with each other as a term of endearment or representing a meaning based on friendship that the word would have no more meaning rooted in the past. He continued by arguing that by people trying to shun the word, to burry it, they would only serve to push the negative term underground. It would then be available to be used against them, as it was in the past, to marginalize and hurt those affected by it. Orpah's response was that they cannot let go of the past because there were too many people lynched in America for being a nigger to forget. She and the guest professor both believed that the word should and could disappear forever through awareness and sensitivity. This is the jist of the two arguments and both sides do hold some sway. This is definitely not a new argument as hip-hop artists have used the term freely for years and have been subject to criticism for just that. However, I had never heard the arguments laid out so well by either side. And while I have to admit that I watched Oprah to hear it, I'm glad I did. I also recommend to everyone to see the film Crash, it's as moving as it is thought provoking.

1 comment:

geoff said...

Good analysis, Kyle. I, too, watched a large portion of the segment -- including the part where they discussed the use of the word "nigger." (I forget who said it, but one of the guests mentioned that there's no point in calling it "the 'N' word;" it might've been the doctor. I couldn't agree more: Calling it the N-word only serves to perpetuate its stigma.)

The whole point being argued about changing the connotation of the word was one of destigmatization. The word will continue to carry its very negative connotation unless one of two things happens:

(1) The public is truly educated, and the prejudice and hatred oozing from the word is eliminated; or, since that is unlikely to ever happen,

(2) The word is used positively by the very group it was originally intended to degrade. The exact same thing is evident in the gay community, where gays and lesbians will call each other queer, gay, dykes, etc.

If you remove the negative aspect of the word, it is no longer powerful. A strong sentiment of symbolic interactionalism, and a derivative of the Thomas theorem: "If men define a situation as real, it becomes real in its consequences."

The word must be used within the group it is/was intended to harm -- not only as a sense of solidarity, but as a way to forever remove its negative stigma.

Quotes from people smarter than me...

"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich" ~ JFK

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. " ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. " ~ Benjamin Franklin

"First it is necessary to stand on your own two feet. But the minute a man finds himself in that position, the next thing he should do is reach out his arms. " ~ Kristin Hunter

"When you're a mayor and you have a problem you blame the provincial government. If you are provincial government and you have a problem you blame the federal government. We don't blame the Queen any more, so once in a while we might blame the Americans." ~ Jean Chretien

"Which is ideology? Which not? You shall know them by their assertion of truth, their contempt for considered reflection, and their fear of debate." ~ John Ralston Saul

"It is undoubtedly easier to believe in absolutes, follow blindly, mouth received wisdom. But that is self-betrayal." ~ John Ralston Saul

"Everybody dies, Tracey. Someone's carrying a bullet for you right now, doesn't even know it. The trick is to die of old age before it finds you." ~ Cpt. Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly, Episode 12)

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