Words Matter

I was talking to an acquaintance (white) recently and he dropped the N-bomb. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard him say it, but it was the first time I said something about it. I’m not sure why I never said anything before, other than my aversion to getting into an argument, and I’m equally unsure why this time I just couldn’t let it go by without comment. Maybe it’s because I seem to be hearing more of it out of white people lately, maybe it’s because I was feeling especially self-righteous. Maybe it’s because I just couldn’t fucking hear it anymore. I don’t know. What I do know it that I find that word, and others like it, offensive to the point of nausea.

What did you just say?

So I started thinking about it. A lot. Like, it was keeping me up at night. Why am I hearing it all the time now? Are the people around me just total assholes? Is it because we live in a supposedly post-racial society, where words like “nigger” are supposed to have lost their hateful power? I don’t think that’s the case. Even typing the word, I feel sick. Does that make me hyper-sensitive?

I don’t think so. I think that maybe as a writer I am more conscious of words and their meanings, am more aware of the power of certain words in certain contexts, though this is not always the case. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a community that is highly diverse. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Atlanta, which saw slavery, abolition, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era and responded with Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe it’s because my parents always stressed that we should treat our fellow human beings with kindness, respect and, wherever possible, love. Maybe it’s even a little bit of white guilt. But I have always taken for granted that certain words were understood to be cruel and hateful, that good people did not use them. I’m not talking about your average 4-letter words, your “shit” and “fuck” and whatnot (in fact, as you’ve probably noticed, I love the 4-letter words). I’m usually not even offended to hear the word “cunt,” as to me it almost sounds and feels like an expression of feminine power, though that is often spun as a negative thing. I’m talking about words that come from a place of deep, even historic, hatred. Words that are verbally violent, whose very utterance invoke the idea of violence.

Maybe it’s a context thing. Louis C.K. does a really good bit about this (Mom, if you watch this video, you will be displeased. Please skip ahead):

I think what he’s getting at is that words like this get their meaning, and their power, based on the context in which we use them. Is a guy calling his buddy a “faggot” because he won’t have another beer the same as that guy calling someone else a “faggot” because he sleeps with men? No. Is it still offensive? The only answer I can give to that is that I wouldn’t say the word in either context, because at its root, “faggot” is a homophobic slur that is used to hurt gay people because they are gay. (For the sake of clarity, the context in which my acquaintance said the word “nigger” was not one of these supposedly less harmful un-bigoted contexts. It was in in the referring-to-a-black-person, “He’s a stupid nigger” context.)

The thing is, in that context, even a legitimate complaint against a person is de-legitimized when you use that word. Because the word is flavored by racism, the statement becomes racist. In this situation, my acquaintance was talking about an encounter with a rude and difficult customer who happened to be black. Are there no words he could have used that better described his problem with this man? I can think of hundreds. “Asshole” comes to mind. So does “douchebag.” “Tool.” “Idiot.” “Loser.” “Dillhole” is a fun one. And none of these words refer to the man’s race, which shouldn’t have even been a factor. But as soon as the word “nigger” came out of his mouth, my acquaintance lost my sympathy. Completely. Because now I was wondering if race was really my acquaintance’s issue with the man all along. And even if race wasn’t his problem, even if the man really was the most awful customer in the world, my acquaintance still comes off looking like a racist, which is equally awful and unacceptable, if not worse.

The same goes for the people who wrote these racist tweets after the president’s re-election. It is perfectly okay to dislike President Obama for his policies. You can hate him for his stances on global warming, taxation of the wealthy, access to healthcare, and Middle Eastern policy. You can even make fun of his big ears or his gangly build. But when you bring his race into your criticism of him, or worse, when your criticism of him refers solely to his race, you make any later complaints look as though they are based on his race. You do yourself a disservice, you do him a disservice, and you do society a disservice by perpetuating racist speech and sentiment – which ought to be irrelevant.

Any questions?

But here’s the crux of my loathing for the word: It rose to power in a time when teenage boys were lynched for being rumored to have hit on white women. When men, women, and children were bought and sold, beaten and killed, at the whims of their owners. When college students were accosted, abused, and killed for trying to register southern blacks to vote. When human beings were kidnapped and shipped, like cargo, across the ocean in conditions so bad that often most of them didn’t survive long enough to be sold as slaves. When women were raped and tormented by the men who owned them. When learning to read, or teaching someone to read, was a crime. When so-called pillars of the southern community used fire-hoses on peaceful protestors. It’s a word that comes from an utterly shameful, hateful aspect of American, and human, history, and every time it is used to demean somebody based on his or her race, it revives that hatred and only serves to divide us further.