Silencing the ‘niggas’ of New York
In banning the n-word, New York City Council is driven by the dodgy notion that words make reality, rather than the other way around.
Oscar-winner Jamie Foxx says it; Dave Chappelle litters his sketches with it; Chris Rock seems to savour it, and many contemporary hip-hop artists continually utter it. Yet on 28 February 2007, New York City symbolically banned the use of the word ‘nigger’. Coming at the end of Black History Month, the ban followed similar moves at the New York state assembly and state senate.
According to Leroy Comrie, a councilman and sponsor of the ban, this is the latest step in a campaign that aims to ‘expunge the most vile of racial slurs from hip-hop music and television’ (1). Supporters of the ban are taking their campaign to the Recording Academy, asking it not to nominate musicians for Grammy Awards if they use the word in their lyrics. Councilman Comrie said the campaign against the word has gained strength since comedian Michael Richards (who played Kramer on TV show Seinfeld) screamed it in a racially charged tirade in Los Angeles club The Laugh Factory. The club has since banned comedians from using the word there and Richards has apologised publicly.
Comrie argued that ‘people are using it out of context’ and they ‘are also denigrating themselves by using the word, and disrespecting their history’. Some hip-hop artists, such as Kurtis Blow Walker, agree and believe that if black people stop using the word it will ‘elevate our minds to a better future’. However, many others, such as Mos Def, NWA and more recently 50 Cent, argue that there is nothing inappropriate about blacks using it – indeed, that blacks using the n-word is a sign of empowerment. By reclaiming a slur and giving it a new meaning, the punch-power of the insult is taken away.
It is very common while walking through New York or travelling on the subway to hear the n-word bandied around by young black kids. This can be somewhat startling if one is from a generation for whom the term went hand-in-hand with real threats of racist physical violence, backed up by state and legal discrimination against black people. Some older people wince when young people use it loudly and frequently in public places. Comrie argues that when ‘using nigga or niggas as every other word, I could tell they didn’t get it. They don’t realize how their self-image is debilitated when they use this awful word in public’.
Mos Def, back in 1999, suggested that blacks were taking a ‘word that has been historically used by whites to degrade and oppress us, a word that has so many negative connotations, and turning it into something beautiful, something we can call our own’ (2). John Ridley, a black author and filmmaker who has written extensively about the n-word, said efforts to abolish it are insulting because they suggest black Americans would allow themselves to be cowed ‘by six letters and two syllables’. Unlike the politicians trying to squelch the word, Ridley added, those who embrace it are showing backbone by declaring ‘we’re controlling it, we’re owning it’.
In fact, the debate about whether black people should use the word has been going on for years. Bill Cosby loathed it, and urged his friends and colleagues not to use it. Richard Pryor peppered his sketches with it, though towards the end of his life he said it might not be such a useful word after all. Recently, Charles Taylor wrote a compelling article for Salon about the black intellectual Randall Kennedy’s book (entitled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word) that questions the kneejerk reactions of liberals to ‘nigger’ and similar words. Kennedy says there’s a difference between a black person and a white person using the n-word. He illustrates the point with Chris Rock’s sketch in which a white man who approaches Rock to compliment him on the critical things he says about blacks receives a punch in the mouth. ‘Rock’s message is clear’, Kennedy writes. ‘White people cannot rightly say about blacks some of the things that blacks themselves say about blacks.’ (3)
But using the word ‘nigger’ these days is more than just a way of black people referring to one another. Eminem knew that the biggest audience for the ‘urban’ movement was indeed ‘white America’ – the sprawling mid-West and southern areas that are the consumers of the ghetto-chic fabrication that passes for cool today. Clearly this is one of the few things that can still shock parents when other ideas that in the past were more incendiary have disappeared. In fact, the strange combination of a relativised perspective on the world, where all opinions are seen as equally valid, alongside the collapse of political alternatives and competing visions, has ensured that there are only a few things that can be guaranteed to raise eyebrows. The n-word is one of them (4).
We can all groan when the fabulously wealthy and white Paris Hilton uses the n-word (5), but much of the debate about ‘nigger’ misses the point. This word has come to distinguish young people from their elders in society. Teenagers have been trying to do that for decades. The idea that words are the things that oppress and dominate us is just wrong – words, art and entertainment reflect a social reality. In fact, even in the past, the word would have had little impact had it not been for the fact that society was organised around racist principles. ‘Nigger’ was a burning insult in the context of an openly racist society, whereas today multiculturalism is becoming the norm. And today, the use of the word ‘nigga’ as a way for young black kids to set themselves apart from mainstream society or from their elders can be seen as a logical consequence of the multicultural celebration of difference, separation.
I asked some of the people I know and work with in New York what they thought of the latest measure by the City Council. Rich Benjamin, who works at a think tank, told me that the majority of his black friends who were born after Martin Luther King’s assassination used the word often in private, but ‘it’s just a verbal tic, a placeholder, like “dude”’. The irony of the council’s decision is that they believe they ‘must protect black people from ourselves’. Melanie, a successful TV producer suggested that ‘while the older generation does not like hearing it, there are much, much more important issues to deal with,’ and ‘this is a diversion’.
It’s worse than a diversion. Across the country, people who in the past would have fought for freedom and rights are now arguing for bans (6). Our society seems incapable of arguing and grappling with ideas and instead seeks to silence things it doesn’t like the sound of. A bit like bad schoolteachers, we are afraid of offending anyone. And nothing could be more offensive than that.
Alan Miller is director of the NY Salon. A public debate, Living in a state of fear, hosted by the NY Salon and the Wolfson Center in association with The Nation and The Economist, takes place on Tuesday 20 March at the New School, NYC.
Brendan O’Neill argues today that the campaign against hate speech is being extended to ‘mate speech’ while Nathalie Rothschild looks at the very similar situation for football fans in London. Read more at: spiked issue Free speech.
(1) New York City Council approves resolution urging people not to use racial slur, USA Today, 28 February 2007
(2) In Bid to Ban Racial Slur, Blacks Are on Both Sides New York Times
(3) The N Word by Charles Taylor, Salon, 22 January 2002
(4) Tyrone has a site simply called Niggaspace’
(5) Paris Hilton on ‘Egotastic’
(6) Alabama college holds n-word conference, CNN, 24 February 2007
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