Monday, April 20, 2009

The N-word

Ok, this might be a difficult post, and I apologize in advance if I offend anyone, but I would rather talk about it than not talk about it because I think it is important.  

Recently two of my good friends (both people of color) were arguing about the n-word and whether or not it can be used in certain situations or never.  One was arguing that in some situations, the meaning of the word has changed and that it can be used in a positive way to refer to a friend or whatever.  The other was saying that the history of the word can never be separated from the word, and therefore it should never be used.
About the first argument:  
First, I hate censorship.  Not only because I like cussing (which I do), but also because I think it is dangerous to limit freedom of expression.  Huckleberry Finn was one of the most commonly banned books during the 20th century because of the number of times that the n-word appears.  People that argued for the book to be banned would often use the fact that the n-word appears however-many hundred times.  However, if you actually read the book for it's content instead of counting "n*****," you know that the book was actually ahead of its time in terms of race relations (especially in the South) and carries a very strong anti-racist message.  Just because Mark Twain actually used the language of the people doesn't change that.  This book was really commonly banned from being taught in schools, but I would rather my children read books like this that show a more accurate history than one that has been censored and polished.
Second, I love word reclamations.  I love that languages are always changing.  The word "queer" was originally a derogatory term given to homosexuals and people perceived to be homosexual, but the LGBT community has reclaimed the word, which I think is absolutely beautiful.  The word can no longer be used against them because they own it.  This is what my first friend was arguing had already happened with the n-word.  He says that his family and friends use it all the time and it never has a negative connotation.  I think that's great - who am I to tell them what to call each other?
And about the second argument:
The n-word is VERY offensive.  And people have a right to be offended by it, especially people that identify with the people that the word was used for.  And as much as the word as been popularized and as much as it shows up in music and in movies, the word is still often used in a very hateful way toward Blacks.  My second friend told me that once at a party, her friend asked some people to stop singing the n-word in Kanye West's song "Golddigger" because it was really offensive to him.  They laughed and kept singing all the words.  This is unacceptable.  Whenever someone politely asks you to stop saying one racially-charged and very offensive word, why the hell wouldn't you stop?  There is no situation in which you NEED to say it, and it's pretty easy to just not say it, so when someone asks, just don't.
So I don't know who's right.  I still think it is dangerous to say we absolutely cannot say the n-word in any situation.  This would only make the terrible history associated with the word invisible.  And who am I to tell Kanye that he can't use the word as he wishes?  But as a white person with no personal connection with the word, who am I to tell someone that they shouldn't be offended by it?  Comments welcome of course.