The scarlet epithet

The Rev. Grainger Browning of Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Fort Washington has been urging his members to stop using it. Students at the historically black Bowie State University banished the word from two dorms and started charging those who use it $25 fines.

Nationally, the NAACP held a symbolic funeral for the word two weeks ago, part of its Stop Campaign to strike such language from the lexicon. The publisher of black magazines Ebony and Jet ordered writers late last year to stop using the word. The New York City Council passed a resolution in February asking residents to refrain from using the word. And tiny Brazoria in southeastern Texas tried unsuccessfully to pass an ordinance leveling $500 fines for uttering the word.

During deliberations there, black residents protested the proposed ban more vigorously than their white neighbors, Mayor Kenneth Corley said.

“When whites use it, they use it to hurt,” said Corley, who is white. “When the black community uses it, they disrespect themselves.” — Stomping the N-Word, Avis Thomas-Lester, Washington Post, May 2, 2007

NThe n-word, once used openly to express white racist derision, is now a staple in the vocabulary of hip young blacks. “Nigga” has become a term used for both abuse and endearment in the world of street gangs and hip-hop music. Like so much profanity, it is intended to shock. Like ghetto speech, it symbolizes rebellion against the establishment.

I heard the word often while growing up in the South and it always made me cringe. With such an ugly pedigree, I have to believe that blacks who use the word today are unwittingly degrading themselves and their race, unraveling decades of hard work by their parents and grandparents to eradicate institutional racism in America.

There were no black children in the schools of my youth. Blacks and whites lived separate and very unequal lives in those days. The accepted wisdom was that “negroes” were inferior, ignorant, dirty, untrustworthy, lazy, and scheming.

In that hyper-polite southern society, every white adult was addressed as “sir” or “ma’am.” Titles of respect were never optional.

Yet black men and women were routinely addressed by their first names — a constant reminder that they occupied the very bottom rung of the social ladder, just below children, right beside the family dog.

A cultured southerner would never use the n-word to a black person’s face, but he had little compunction about insulting them with it behind their backs. On the lips of the most hateful bigots, the n-word could crush the spirit of the proudest of blacks.

So why has such a dehumanizing insult suddenly become hip?

Some blame ignorance about black history. Some shrug it off as no different from any other word. Others, like college student Leonard Young, think the n-word is no longer insulting.

“It’s only offensive when people of other races use it,” suggested Young.

I’m having a hard time thinking of an apt comparison. What would the reaction of Holocaust survivors be if young Jewish men started wearing yellow stars of David on their business suits as some sort of inside joke?

If it hadn’t become so inexplicably ingrained in Hip-Hop culture, could any of us imagine an ethnic group turning a racial slur back on itself as some ironic term of endearment?

Is it really nothing but a meaningless word? Does this ironic use of the n-word among blacks prove that racism is finally dead? Is the word so avant-guard that the rest of us simply don’t get the joke?

Or is it possible that an insult is always an insult, even when it’s said with a smile?

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  1. Maybe they’re trying to deflate the term by turning it into a “bro” moniker among themselves. Deny it has any sting by giving it a new identity. Use it in a tough, complimentary way like the term “nasty” is used.

    Wouldn’t be the first time people have done that.

    But isn’t this a sort of reverse racism, because in order to un-demonize the word, they have to deny the way it’s been used against them, which essentially writes off those who have used it this way. (Make sense?)

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