Friday, July 18, 2008

Nigger Who Has Permission

Yesterday on the view the ladies decided to discuss the word nigger.  Though I am huge fan of Whoopie, she completely lost me when she decided to defend the continued use of the word nigger by blacks.  This word reclamation project has got to stop. It is not appropriate for us to use it, and then say to whites that they cannot.  I am particularly bothered by the assertion that this word can be used as a term of endearment. A term of endearment is honey, sweetie, or baby, not a word that signifies that a group of people are not human, or somehow less than based on the colour of skin. If the genesis of a word is hate regardless of who or circumstance the meaning will not change.

The continual usage of the word by blacks keeps it alive.  Each time it is used, it is a reminder of the terrible inequalities that exist in this society. It is assaultive speech.period..When I hear a black person saying nigger, I hurt for them because to me it is an indication that they have internalized racism to some degree.  They have actively chosen to employ the master tools, and as we are all aware, this is not the path to freedom and equality.  To take ownership of that word is to admit to some degree the possibility exists that we are all potential niggers. 

I find it disheartening that it was Elizabeth who had the courage to say that the continual usage of this word is wrong.  She showed great courage in confronting Whoopie and Star on their hypocritical approach to this issue.  How is it that a white woman is the one to have to tell blacks about the perils of racism, when everyday we are forced to confront it?  What does it say about our level of racial comfort?  We have a high drop out rate, many of live in poverty and black children have internalized blackness as, and less than, yet we insist on owning labels that reinforce  this as a positive.  If we as a people are going to demand respect from others, we need to practice it ourselves.  We need to start to associate blackness with positive metaphors.  Blackness needs to mean good, beautiful and strong. When we hold on to labels from the past we are only breathing life into an ugly, self-defeating trajectory.


27 comments:

Shirley said...

I have a real problem with this word. I posted about this. I don't use this word. I think it's duerogatory in nature. I have a white neighbor whose daughter is black is it then meaningful if she yells "Come here you little n@#$%@!" No it was intended as an insult. Much like "come here you little sh%#!" Which I will never, ever do to my children. Civil Rights leaders fought to get past this kind of thing being used by white people. So, why is it being reintroduced? To claim something that has a negative definition? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger My own children have friend who are black and their parents use that word. When my children asks me what it is and I tell them it's a bad word and next they ask why is such and such using it? and why can't I? Then what? Hate is in all forms. In Cleveland I hear a lot about black on black crime but I never hear white on white crime. Maybe it has something to do with words?

frau sally benz said...

This is one time when I sided with (the often annoying) Elisabeth.

It is really not possible to reclaim a word that is STILL being used negatively, IMO. This is similar to my issue with reclaiming bitch.

If the word was no longer used to express so much hate and anger, then at that point I think I would at least understand people saying "okay, we're going to make this word a positive term now" (though I still doubt I would ever use it or be comfortable with others using it). But the fact of the matter is that if it's not okay for a white person to use it as a "term of endearment" then it's not okay for you to use it that way either.

DiosaNegra1967 said...

first sherri sheppard and now whoopi....and i thought better of whoopi.

*sigh*

Daisy said...

You have challenged me today, Renee! I am hear to say, officially, hmmmmmmmmmm.

:)

I've always been one who thought it was not a white person's place to say what black people should or should not say about themselves. Then again, I also witnessed an unfair work situation wherein a black man always said "Who's your nigger?" to another co-worker, but when a white person said exactly the same thing in the same context, was reprimanded for it. (I mean, you know, HUH???) Add to that, the younger, rather naive white man was obviously imitating the older, worldly, athletic black man whom he admired and from whom he had learned this expression in the first place.

He was basically informed, point-blank, that the black co-workers could say this, but the white co-workers could not. Period, end of discussion.

Many of us talked about the situation for a long time afterwards.

So, interesting that it was Elizabeth who speaks up.

Then again, I love to call myself a hippie and (more incendiary) redneck, for shock effect as well as simply to describe myself at certain times... both of those words have been used in hateful ways, and I would even go so far as to say REDNECK is an ethnic slur, but what you gonna do when you have "You may be a redneck if..." books are on the bestsellers list and you have the REDNECK COMEDY TOUR on Comedy Central network? I finally just gave up and embraced it. Of course, neither of those words is as oppressive as the n-word, yet I would say that they still have been used to put people in their place and delineate who is and is not an "acceptable human being"...

Again, you make me think! I've linked your blog and will be returning! :)

Meadester said...

Renee posted:
It is not appropriate for us to use it, and then say to whites that they cannot.


Right, so let white people use it too. Some of us will anyway, even if its not to your face.

Words only have as much power as you give them. This word was not always racist. The Wikipedia article Shirley referenced say so. I know I can find sources to back that up if you don't consider Wikipedia reliable. It could surely lose its racist connotation over time if it was not treated as such a "forbidden fruit."

Of course, you shouldn't tolerate anyone saying it to you in a tone or context that is obviously meant to be offensive and hurtful. But that's true of most words.

Renee said...

@meadster
Right, so let white people use it too. Some of us will anyway, even if its not to your face.
No the solution is not to promote more usage of it. You can debate the semantics of what the original word meant but lets be honest it is commonly understood as a racial epithet. Such language is simply in discordance with the idea that we are all imbued with a certain sense of human dignity.
@daisy
I've always been one who thought it was not a white person's place to say what black people should or should not say about themselves.
Not all POC will agree with me but sometimes I do feel it is appropriate to point out when someone has internalized racism. Due to its insidious nature people are not always aware that they are performing race. We have trained by society to not think critically about our actions or language. I certainly would have no problem with a white person taking an anti-racist position to this issue. Taking an anti racist position is not the preserve of POC only. If we do not work as allies we cannot hope to eradicate racism.

Danny said...

I've been trying to put up a comment for the last several minutes but I must have been trying while you were making the changes to your commenting format. Nice change by the way. I'm going to have to look for something like this.

Anyway about why that woman (I don't know her name) seemed confused on the subject of who can and cannot use that word. That conversation is a prime example of why when dealing with an -ism there has to be open discussion by ALL sides. If you just have one side silencing all the others when they try to speak you won't get anywhere. We have to get all this negativity, ignorance, confusion, and whatever else onto the table to work our way through it if we expect to live that postracial society that we have supposedly living in for years.

Roxie said...

I don't know if Whoopi was exactly defending usage of the word more than trying to explain why the word is still used by some people. I might need to watch the clip again.

However, I agree that NO ONE should use this word. I didn't grow up using it and hearing it in casual conversation cuts at me.

One thing though, Star has not been on the show for quite some time now. It's Sherri.

Renee said...

Thanks for the correction..I am not a regular viewer of the show..Whoopie and Sherri were both defending the use of the word in everyday life, as I posted one claimed it could be a term of affection and I find that disgraceful.

@Danny yes what is needed is a more open and honest conversation.

Shirley said...

The only true way to break down barriers is for everyone to talk. I think we as a society need to experience what others experience. Native Americans have a saying which I might mess up: Don't judge another man until you have walked a mile in his moccasains. I think this site offers that barrier breaking venue. I was very scared to post here.

Renee said...

@Shirley womanist musings is meant to be a safe space. Please feel free to express your point of view.

Maria said...

Yes. This is the safest space for expression I've ever seen, tbh. And I read 20+ blogs daily.
I comment here the most.

whatsername said...

Now this is really interesting because I was cringing watching Elizabeth talk. As a young white woman I felt embarrassed by her performance here. I felt like she really missed the point that Whoopi was trying to make, which was that the whole point in this reclamation was that it was putting power back into the hands of black people. When she was saying "we will decide" WE will do this, WE will choose that... There it is right there for me. That's taking power back.

Now, whether or not this word and the reclamation that has happened around it is actually working towards that goal? I don't know. But the point is, it's not my call. And I felt like she really ran past and missed this point, all the while saying how she "understood" but it was really clear to me she didn't. And her running over Whoopi's words and not just shutting up for a second to listen really displayed that.

Renee said...

I actually watched this clip with a friend of mine and we both came away supporting Elizabeth 100%. Believe me that is not an easy statement for me to make.
Whoopie said we will decide while only giving one position on this word, which was tolerance of it. Many POC, myself included or insulted and shamed by its continued usage and in a way she was legitimizing its usage to all of the viewers. I resent that. Since there was no one else to stand up and say that it was wrong I feel that what she did was exceedingly brave and she earned a whole new level of respect from me. She voiced the opinion that I could not because I was not there. She did not make wild leaps or assumptions, she simply questioned whether or not nigger perpetuates hatred and it does. Just because someone is white does not mean that they should always be silent in black circles. Anti-racism requires the work of all races.

Kara said...

I don't really think she was defending the word, but saying that some people continue to use it and people should understand that, even though they might not agree to the usage. Frankly, I still use the word as a black young woman, but not in the common way. I use it to describe instances where there is so much ignorance and stupidity involved that I can't think of any other word to describe these people.

But anywayz, i love the blog.

Danny said...

Even now I'm phasing the casual meaning of that word out of my vocabulary. But a lot of people forget that there is more to that word that just a derogatory slur against black people. That word originally just meant ignorant person (which is why it was applied to black people later on). And like Kara says there is some shit that is so stupid and ignorant these days that no other words fit.

I have to agree with Renee on this. Elizabeth had the guts to go try to start a VERY difficult conversation (which I think would have lasted if it weren't for their time constraint). When you are the outsider on an issue be it race, gender, or whatever it can be very easy to be intimidated into not talking. Thats not the same as just stopping and listening. Its unfair to expect someone to learn without giving them the chance to interact. Yes Elizabeth may have sounded totally ignorant, she may have been out of line, she may have been getting on Whoopi's last nerve but I think she did the right thing by speaking up because she was on the verge of addressing a lot of the confusion and misunderstanding that whites feel when it comes to race issues with blacks.

Telling someone they're privileged and therefore can only listen but not speak on an issue is not a magic bullet that will lead to instant understanding. I see this happen to male feminists (or men who are just trying to see where feminists are coming from) sometimes and it burns me up to no end.

Professor Tracey said...

How exactly do you ban words from the English language? Are black people expected to stop using all words that remind white people of their past and in some cases current racism? So, we stop using Nigger or Nigga and what's
next, don't mention lynching or nooses?

I still do not understand the debate about white folks wanting to use this word. And I really do not understand them saying ANYTHING to black folks about it. Black folks have paid the price of being BURDENED with the word and we have the right to debate, discuss, argue, cry, struggle, and hopefully come to stop using this word so regularly. I see nothing wrong with that.

And I will never support Elizabeth Hassleback's crying. It's stopped the whole discussion when she should have been listening! That why can't we all get along stuff is so fake. It's code language that I do not wish to be confront with how black people feel or view the world, I just want to pretend that everyone lives equal lives. That's why it's a major disservice for black folks to even entertain "banning" any word that has had such a negative impact in their lives. We need to talk about it again and again, until folks get on the same page.

Every cultural group has some negative term that they have flipped in some fashion, why are black folks the only one's talking about banning a word. We are not children. We need to confront out past like intelligent adults. I'll ban the N word, when gay folks give up queer and faggot, when white folks stop calling each other the C word (a word that black folks never use) and so and so forth.

And I will really jump on the ban the N word bandwagon, when EVERYONE stops using the word bitch! That words burns me more than nigger and I how many feminist blogs have that word listed in their posts or blogrolls? The word bitch has been used to hurt me more than nigger ever has, are we banning that too?

napturality said...

I do not come from a black household where "nigger" was used. My parents always taught me not to use it and that it was still hurtful. I also noticed that people who don't use it look at people who do as trashy, or "less" than they are. People who do look at people who don't as "thinking they're too good for the rest of us." I have a few problems with the word. A- it is choosing to identify as a word that was used to oppress us. This word was not chosen by us- it was forced on us. Claiming it now seems after-the-fact. Then again, we could say the same thing about "black" (as that racial category was constructed to oppress us as well), but regardless, "I'm black and I'm proud." Part of the oppression is that people who are not us have a big part in constructing our group identity (a much bigger part than we actively play in theirs). I honestly don't know what to do from here though. Try to "reclaim" (which we can't do, because it was never ours) "nigger". Invent something new as a people to call ourselves? (Personally, I liked "sister" and "brother".) I don't know. Also- there are people who say that they are recognizing the status of black people in this country and that since that's how our countries on this side of the Atlantic treat us, we should acknowledge our status by using "nigger". Apart from using something that was never ours and was created to hurt us, it's a problem because black women are never referred to as "niggers". We don't get to share in whatever sense of brotherhood recognizing that shared state of oppression brings people who call each other "my nigger". We get to either be "bitches" or "hoes" and I refuse to be either. It's inherently patriarchal, and I won't be anyone's bitch, or anyone's ho.

Anonymous said...

As a white man, I would simply never be comfortable telling a black person not to use the term "nigger." I don't LIKE it, and I will say so if asked, but I just don't think it's appropriate to bring it up.

However, I would have no compunction against calling another non-black POC on it if they used it as an insult towards blacks, any more than I would have a problem complaining to a black person who used ethnic insults when talking about a non-black POC.

Hearing it doesn't make me want to use it myself, as I don't like it in any context. I concede, though, that the concept of "spoken insult used as an affectionate or humorous term" seems to be pretty wide spread among humankind. I have an excellent relationship with someone in which "stupidhead" exists only as a mutual compliment, not an insult. That said, I think it's rare to have the word of choice be one which is SO negative as is "nigger."

Renee said...

@ anonymous "As a white man, I would simply never be comfortable telling a black person not to use the term "nigger." I don't LIKE it, and I will say so if asked, but I just don't think it's appropriate to bring it up."

I am sorry but discomfort is not a good enough excuse for abdication of duty.

Anonymous said...

We disagree, then, about whether it's an abdication of duty, mostly because we disagree about what level of racism it is.

Whether or not you, personally, think it's an issue which is obviously and wholly racist, it seems apparent that there are many people in the black community who do not (and who come from all walks of life.) And obviously, the person using it does not consider it to be a racist insult.

There is simply insufficient consensus as to whether or not this is racist as to make me feel like I have a duty to prevent it. And this is not "me, inserting my white view of what isn't racist" as much as it is "me, looking for consensus or a significant majority to buy into."

My duty, if I have one, extends to fighting what I think is racist. And I am not convinced that the use of "nigger" by one black to affectionately refer to another black is racist enough to require a response.

Renee said...

@Anonymous There is simply insufficient consensus as to whether or not this is racist as to make me feel like I have a duty to prevent it. And this is not "me, inserting my white view of what isn't racist" as much as it is "me, looking for consensus or a significant majority to buy into."

Depending on others for a determination as to whether something is racist or not is simple yet another abdication of duty. If the word makes you as a person feel uncomfortable then it is suitably racist.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I realised I'm used to posting on blogs where my name pops up automatically; this is sailorman, from Amptoons (my usual lurking spot)--sorry I didn't ID myself immediately, my bad.)

Anyway:
I have trouble with that for a simple reason, which is that everything I have read suggests that my own opinion IS NOT the one I should be using. E.g. just because I think something is NOT racist does not give an answer as to whether or not it actually is.

If you want me to use my own sense of racism rather than "POC society's sense" then that would go against what most people seem to suggest. If I were on here arguing that it was entirely a wonderful thing to use the term "niggardly" in every other sentence, would you trust my instincts there? (yes, I know, it's not the same word, or the same root. And yes, I know what it really means. But only a linguist or an asshole would make a point of using it these days, IMO.)

Renee said...

In this case the issue is so incredibly divisive that you are not going to get a consensus from the black community ever. In cases like this what else can you do but use your own judgment. To say because there is no consensus I can't make a judgment call is once again an abdication of duty.

If I were on here arguing that it was entirely a wonderful thing to use the term "niggardly" in every other sentence, would you trust my instincts there? (yes, I know, it's not the same word, or the same root. And yes, I know what it really means. But only a linguist or an asshole would make a point of using it these days, IMO.)

I have a great respect for language and the power that comes with it. Niggardly means what it means and people that take offense to it do so out of ignorance. It personally would not cause me to question your intent, however I will state that my position is based on a love of accuracy in language. It has no relation to Nigger and people should be aware of the difference before they get upset. I have perhaps a naive tendency to take people at their word until they give me reason to do otherwise.

I know that the position that I take on this issue is unique. It is not often that you will hear a black person invite a white person into our supposed spheres but I believe that as long as we continue to operate in spheres we will never have any kind of racial harmony. It is time to start having the tough conversations rather than talking around the issues. The obstinate desire to hold on to this world is about resisting white people...while I understand the desire to resist and tell truth to power in this instance it is counter to racial progress if it begins with the internalization of racial hate. I am not buying the whole its a term of endearment crap one little bit...You wouldn't like at your child and say come here you little nigger

Jennyjinx said...

I've had conversations like this. I don't believe it's possible to reclaim such a horrid word. It deserves to be placed in the history books and left alone.

Full disclosure: I am a white woman who has a Black child. I have never had to deal with someone calling me "nigger", but I've been called "nigger lover" and was told I'd end up just like Nicole Brown Simpson. I also saw the pain my own child endured at the hands of cruel children who didn't know any better.

Her grandmother is one that believes the word can be used affectionately. I disagree. Because of that I sat with her in her kitchen and we discussed the whys of both of our positions. She didn't come away convinced that I was right, but she did agree to respect my wishes that my daughter not to have to hear that nonsense inside of a safe environment.

I don't allow my daughter, her family or her friends to use the word in my house. I explain to her friends why I feel it's a self-denigrating term. I know that a lot of people feel that I, because I'm white, don't have a right to argue against the term. I do so because my daughter and her ancestors suffered in part because of that word. I don't want to be part of it's continuing life.

Renee said...

@Jenny thanks for having the courage to engage so many people use their privilege as an excuse to allow the continues usage of that hateful world.

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