Nigger, perhaps the most controversial and contradictory word in the English language, was the topic of a recent speech. For years many have used the term and the response has spanned form public uproars and boycotts to shrugged shoulders and apathy. A single word has the possibility to rise up a crowd in some instances, or can be heard in lyrics and make millions.
Who’s allowed to say it? Under what conditions is it okay? If I’m just reciting a song, is it racist? Questions like these have been asked to help clear some of the fog surrounding the term. Typically, and unfortunately, the rule of thumb seems to be: If you’re black than it’s okay.
One woman challenged the semantics and appropriateness of the word “nigger”. A talk was given mid January 2009 at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California. Marlita Hill, a professor at Mount San Antonio, presented her personal views, along with some history, of the term.
She began by asking the audience to take a deep breath, making fun of the intensity of the word. She quickly flashed a card with the word “nigger” spelled out for all to see, and the class laughed.
Her tactic is creative. She down played the emotional hold that the term has on the students by making her speech entertaining, fun, while remaining quite informative.
She give a brief history of the word, “… in the 1700’s ‘nigger’, along with ‘boy’, were used to avoid calling blacks by their surname. A technique of disrespect. Though both equal in offence ‘nigger’ ended up with a bad rap while ‘boy’ escaped relatively cleanly.”
“Could you have imagined if the two had been reversed? Then we’d think nothing of hearing stuff like ‘The Backstreet Niggers’…” and so on.
She humorously accounted the more modern definitions of the term, quoting Webster’s 10th dictionary edition.
“Nigger” she read “a black person usually to be taken offensively.” But Hill wondered if this was an accurate definition. “…NAACP, 2 national Protestant organizations, and The National Scrabble Player’s Association” are some of the groups looking to either amend or abolish the word entirely.
On the other end of the spectrum, Hill noted an incident where on “May 28th, 1998” after a popular Los Angeles radio station bleeped out the word “nigger” from the songs they played “the LA censor bill [a write up of request and complaints reported to the FCC by the public] actually had hundreds of kids calling in saying that they had the right to be called nigger”.
She examined the word’s use as a term of endearment, noting the confusion it causes. “Perhaps once if it most confusing, though affectionate uses is that by black women who express their love to their man by telling them ‘you my nigger’”.
Such inconsistencies leave one scratching their head. Oprah wants the word banned. Spike Lee, who frequently uses “nigger” in his films, publically criticizes fellow director Quentin Tarentino for doing the same. The drawing line, again, seems to be race.
“The Detroit News of 1995 said that more whites are adopting the dress, manner, music, and slang of black culture. But when the follow the black example of using the n-word the results aren’t always too favorable.” Hill then proceeded to demonstrate a scenario where a white person calls her a “nigger”, and though it was said with no malice, the situation was funny due to its uncomfortablity.
“…the Michigan Chronicle June 30th 1998 asked ‘isn’t this the height of hypocrisy?’ and I say yes.”
“But in all fairness we [black people] don’t always use it in an endearing way. For instance comedian Chris Rock, whose been accused of ‘black on black’ racism for making a differentiation of blacks and niggers.”
Hill was referring to Rock’s skit “I Hate Niggers,” in which he claims that black people hate the same things that white people hate about black people, though more so. He refers to these hated blacks as “niggers” and clearly draws a line between ignorant black people and every other black person. “I love black people, but I hate niggers boy. I wish they’d let me join the Ku Klux Klan,” Rock said during the skit.
Hill goes to say “On the whole this is not just a confusion between blacks and whites, blacks and blacks, rich and poor. Hell, everybody’s throwing up their arms about this one.”
“It’s a confounding situation.” And she’s right. OJ Simpson was acquitted for the murder of his wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. It is believed that Detective Mark Fuhrman, who was assigned to the case, frequently used the word in a derogatory manner. It is speculated that this was a determining factor which lead the jury to vote not guilty. Two people’s lives were lost and the jury’s ruling may not have been based on the facts, but rather the emotional turbulence surrounding the word “nigger”.
“And nobody knows what to do about it. Except me.” Hill said “So first , what not to do; The Jacksonville Free Press of July 15th 1998 says that ‘the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP is lobbying to ban books. Classic books containing the word ‘nigger’. Like ‘Song of Solomon’, ‘Huckleberry Finn’, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’.
“This gag approach is the most absurd thing I have ever heard of.” A word has never, in America’s history, been banned or deemed illegal to use, most likely due to its lack of effectiveness and violation against the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of speech to ever American citizen.
“The Michigan Chronicle of 1997 said that ‘it would be foolish to refrain from using the word’ as if its absence will make it and all the hated behind it magically disappear.”
Such is the magnitude of this word that Hill herself confessed that she was torn as to whether to say it or not during her presentation. “So what’s my simple solution? Say it if you need to. It’s an important enough issue guys, but we should be able to talk about it, without hyphenating, asterisking, blushing, whispering, or avoiding it all together.
“Just one rule! Don’t direct it at anybody unless you know they’re okay with it. Right nigger?”
The audience once again laughed though it was clear that the message sunk it. A completely logical and sensible approach to dealing with the n-word was presented.