Monday, January 14, 2013

The N-Word Debate Resurrected

I have no problem with Quentin Tarantino's use of the word nigger in his film, Django Unchained. As he has said, it's accurate usage for the historical period of the film. I also don't have a problem with his usage at the Golden Globes. It really is about context. He didn't call anyone a nigger; he made an observation about its usage.

(Note: I'm breaking my own rule in this post in using the word nigger instead of the euphemism, n-word. I think that it's time for me to take away the power of the word in my life.)

However, I do take issue with the prevalent mythology that black people use the word nigger all the time. I'm black and 57 years old. I don't know all black people but I know a lot of black people. NONE of the black people that I know typically use nigger as a greeting or in general conversation.

The arguments that I read from white people who feel put upon because they can't use the word is that black rappers say it all the time! I don't know any rappers, but I don't count entertainers looking to make a dollar as the standard by which I live.

Black people do not run around greeting each other with the word as a rule. Among many black people, it is not considered a polite term to simply use in greeting.

What I don't understand is why under normal circumstances a white person would desire to say nigger. What's the point? If you really hold no racist feelings, then why on earth would you want to use such a vile and demeaning term? Is it some cheap thrill?

If you are engaged in a discussion where you need to say nigger, then I have no issue with that. However, it would come across as less offensive if you simply said n-word. What most black people object to is the use of the term nigger to define us. You can't call me a nigger and argue that you have a right to do so because it's not fair that only black people can say it. I just don't buy that white people are really that stupid or naive.

I have no problem with using the word in context to describe some historical application of the term. However, I don't find myself in circumstances where there is a need for the use of nigger as a rule. I can't help but wonder just when it is that white people find such a pressing need to say nigger that we're still having this ludicrous discussion about the alleged unfairness of white people not being able to freely use the word.


Beth said...

I wondered how you would feel about its usage in the movie (and QT's usage of it in other movies, and in discussion), and I'm glad you feel the way you do. I really think he makes a valid point in using it in the context he does.

As for white people wanting to use it as part of casual conversation...I just do not get that AT ALL. I really don't know what is behind that, and I don't know of anyone who actually feels that way. I suspect right wingnuttery.

Ken Riches said...

I think Django was exceptionally well done.

Straka said...

It is lack of reflectivity at best, and disingenuous bigotry at worst.

You don't have to be a social scientist to have at least a vague sense that, at times, oppressed groups appropriate oppressors' language in order to redefine its content, and, even, potentially to fight back. I.e., the meaning of the word is always contingent upon context, and that context includes, importantly, the speaker, i.e., *who* says something changes the meaning that "something" as much as when s/he says and where, etc. Just like most people also have at least a vague awareness of the fact that the membership in a (discriminated) group gives you the license to poke in the issues pertaining to the culture of that group in a more raw way than if you're an outsider (think, for instance, the criticism that Sacha Baron Cohen accrued with Bruno (homophobia) versus with Borat (anti-Semitism).

And lastly, anyone can test this on themselves. While all discriminations are emphatically NOT equal, a little thought experiment still can be useful. Most of us have some thing(s) that we are particularly sensitive about and that have been ascribed to us, and that we cannot (for all practical purposes) change and that other people may regard with derision. Think about that. And the slandering labels that come with that. And think about how you'd feel if the person in the same predicament used it whereas if someone without that predicament used it. Voila, all is explained.

Mark said...

I was picking up trash yesterday and a young black man passed me on the phone, walking with swagger and very emphatically declaiming this particular word repeatedly.
I took a moment to observe him, and it was abundantly clear to me that he felt the need to protect himself to the other person on the line, to prove his worth, to speak aggressively as a form of self-protection. And to boot, that he had had to do this his entire life.
The word is so sharp that it can be hard to get past it. But I think we have to view its use it the context of the life experience of the user. He was clearly able to use "nigga" in one way to denote an ally, in another way to denote an enemy.
The very rough equivalent for gays is the use of "she" for other men. Sometimes we use it to express contempt, sometimes affection.
I think what bears noting in both cases is how language is used for emphasis, and overuse of one word can dilute it to the point of meaninglessness. For example, "dude" -- there are moments where it is essential, and then its just annoying. There are gays who ALWAYS use "she" - girl, please!(That was irony.)
I wont watch "Django Unchained" because i can't stand how Tarantino fetishizes violence. But if the use of the n-word in the film is historically accurate, it must be defended on those grounds.
What's for sure is that those who overuse the word are far more noticeable than those who never use it, even though they are a small minority of black people. Likewise gays who use "faggot." This is the nature of provocative language - it provokes. I think the young man who passed me yesterday knew other passersby could hear him, and felt the need to create a bubble of intimidation around him. And I thought it was sad that he had a life where he felt that need.