Why We Should Delete "Nigger" From Our Vocabulary

LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps no word in the English language stirs more passion and outrage among blacks than the word "nigger." The most recent offender is not a loose-lipped politician, celebrity or athlete but that bible of the English Language, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.It is now the target of a national campaign led by Kathryn William's, curator of the Museum of African American History in Flint, Michigan, "Emerge"' magazine and NAACP chapters in Detroit and New York. They claim that Webster's "redefinition" of the word "nigger" racially stigmatizes blacks and other non-whites.They are right. The 1996 edition of Webster's defines "nigger" as "1. a black person -- usually taken to be offensive. " 2. a member of any dark-skinned race -- usually taken to be offensive" " 3. a member of a socially disadvantaged class of persons." It's easy to see the dangers in this definition. One could easily infer that "nigger" refers exclusively to blacks, the poor, and other non-whites and that all blacks are "socially disadvantaged." If the word must be dictionary defined -- and several dictionaries have deleted it -- it should be "deracialized" and defined simply as "a racially derogatory term applied to African-Americans."Frederick C. Mish, Webster's editor-in-chief, insists that the definition accurately reflects the common usage of the word and, moreover, as the dictionary notes, "Its use by and among blacks is not always intended or taken as offensive." Apparently this is to be seen as some sort of seal of racial approval.This is self-serving, but, unfortunately, true. In popular black magazines, black writers have gone though lengthy gyrations to justify use of the word. Their argument could be boiled down to this -- the more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim to be cleansing the word of its negative connotations. Comedian turned activist Dick Gregory had this idea some years ago when he called his autobiography "Nigger" as did black writer Robert Decoy with his novel "The Nigger Bible."Many blacks say they use the word in a comradely or affectionate way with each other and, at times, with disdain ("Nigger, you sure got an attitude.") Still other blacks say defiantly they don't care what white people call them because words can't harm them. This misses the point. Words are not value-neutral. They express concepts and ideas, and often reflect society's standards. If color-phobia is one of those standards, then a word as emotionally charged as "nigger" can reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can't be sanitized by overuse. It can only send a signal to non-blacks that it's OK to use the word. Many hip-hop young whites casually toss the word around among themselves or use it when talking to or about blacks with no clue as to its damaging intent. The word "nigger" -- no matter who uses it or how it's used -- remains the most hurtful and enduring symbol of black oppression. In "Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain uses the word to capture the worthlessness of black lives during slavery. Huck, lying to Aunt Sally, says he is late because the boat "blowed out a cylinder head." Aunt Sally: "Good gracious! Anybody hurt?" Huck: "No'm. Killed a nigger."Aunt Sally: "Well it's lucky; because sometimes people do get hurt." During the era of legal segregation, some of America's major magazines and newspapers continued to refer to blacks as "nigger," "niggah," "coon," and "darky."News articles depicted blacks as buffoons or dangerous criminals. The NAACP and black newspaper editors waged loud campaigns against stereotyping and the use of racist epithets. The Black scholar W.E.B. Dubois took white editors to task for refusing to spell "Negro" with a capital "N," a policy Dubois called a "conscious insult." Even some black defenders of the "N" word have recanted. After a trip to Africa in the late 1970s, the comedian Richard Pryor stunned a concert audience by pledging that he would never use the word "nigger" again. Pryor, who had made a career out of using the word in his routines, softly explained that the word was profane and disrespectful. In today's volatile climate of racial hostility and polarization a campaign to get Websters to "deracialize" its definition of the word is worthwhile. But the campaign I would like to see is one that prods Webster's to delete "nigger completely -- and to get African Americans to delete the word from their vocabulary as well.


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