Our Mis-edumacation About the N-Word

n-wordAbout a year ago, one of my friends asked me if it was cool if she called me her "nigga." "No," I replied with disgust, hoping that the conversation wouldn't come up.

My friend, who says she is Armenian, Lebanese, and white, justified her question because she has a black relative. My friend characterizes herself as "semi-black" (whatever that means), especially when it is in her best interest (i.e. if she can benefit from affirmative action). She also told me that she asked my friend Maranda (the other black girl in our grade) if this common derogatory term could be used as a term of endearment. Maranda said she thought the word couldn't mean any harm coming from a friend.

I knew my friend wouldn't say the word as an insult or in disdain, but I still didn't approve of her referring to me as her "nigga." I understood that her interpretation of the word was intended as a term of endearment; comrade, homie, my sister -- those were her true intentions. So why did her question bother me? Did I take her comments too literally?

Then the question of the "Protean N-word" arose. The Protean N-word describes the word nigger as it is used with different purposes when inserted into different contexts. These contexts determine whether the word nigger is being used as a racist and derogatory term, as a historical word, or as a term of endearment.

I can say that I learned from that particular experience, and today I would probably handle it differently. My answer would remain the same, but I would want to explain why nigga or nigger is not a term of endearment.

The word nigger is actually derived from the Latin word for the color black: niger. It wasn't until 1837 when Hosea Easton, a famous author, established that the term was "employed to impose contempt upon [Blacks] as an inferior race … "

The N-word has its roots as a derogatory term and has always been used throughout history as a hurtful epithet. Nigger is a term that is rooted in hatred and has been used to belittle blacks or degrade African American culture. Nigger still inflicts pain and is still an insult when implied to people of all kinds of oppressed heritages. People sometimes forget the labels "Niggers of Europe" and "Niggers of the Middle East" were used in reference to people of Irish and Middle Eastern descent by Anglo-American supremacists. Those labels also have been used to demean people from those cultures, invoking nothing but hatred and ignorance.

Unfortunately, in modern society, young people have abused and exploited the word. The reality is that blacks shouldn't use it when addressing their black friends with ease in the presence of people from other backgrounds because it transforms the word into a friendly name, and others can then rationalize using the term nigger casually.

A few months ago, I read a story about poor whites who are increasingly referring to one another as "niggers" or "white nigga trash" to inflict the lowest of insults on each other. There is also controversy surrounding Hispanic and Latino students who call their black friends "niggaz" because they are minorities and feel that it's alright. After Jennifer Lopez recorded her hit, "I'm Real," the African American community was outraged about Lopez's use of the term nigger in her song. In the midst of the quarrel with Ms. Lopez, it seems the black community suddenly forgot about all the black artists who use nigger like it's the time of day. If the public is going to criticize Ms. Lopez for her use of the term nigger then they should also lament the many black entertainers -- particularly rappers -- that insert nigger into their music.

Back in the 70s, Saturday Night Live comedian Richard Pryor was featured in a skit called "That Nigger's Crazy." Today, the popular comedian Chris Rock opens one of his best-known skits with, "I love Black people, but I hate Niggers." Both of these black comedians have been subject to criticism for playing on the N-word in their skits, yet they receive only a fraction of the criticism that Whites receive when using the term nigger in public. Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia (a former Ku Klux Klan member) made a remark in March 2001 and got into trouble for saying that "he had seen a lot of white niggers in [his] time." His comment raised eyebrows, and nearly destroyed his public reputation. Why did the public react differently?

Too many young people believe that derogatory terms have different meanings depending on who's saying them. But regardless of who's calling who a derogatory term, even if someone is degrading their own ethnic group, the use of any derogatory term outside of the classroom is hurtful. When someone who has been called a nigger in the past uses the word in reference to themselves and others, they seem to think it is empowering. Teens feel that giving the term a new meaning will enable them to use it without invoking its old derogatory meaning, but it doesn't. In a similar way, gays and lesbians have reclaimed terms like "queer" and "fag," and women have referred to their female counterparts as "bitches" and "hos." How can degrading oneself really be empowering? How can it be a display of one's solidarity with others of the same gender, racial or sexual status?

Related Articles About the N-Word

The N-word is Nasty! -- Shine.com
Considering the N-Word -- Tolerance.org
Teacher's Lesson on 'N' word Angers Parents -- CNN.com
The N-word: Black Britons Speak -- The Guardian Unlimited (UK)
The N-Word -- Independent Weekly
Can We De-fang the N-word? -- USA Today
In my opinion, the word nigger and other derogatory terms have no place as an epithet in American society or in the entertainment business. All people, regardless of their race, should avoid using nigger especially when it is unnecessary. It is hateful, shameful and a disgrace to all when it is used unintelligently.

But is there an intelligent way to use the word nigger? Randall Kennedy, a Professor at Harvard University Law School, has a lot to say about that. His book, entitled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, documents many court cases involving the term nigger, including the controversies surrounding the use of the word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a required book in many high school English classes.

While ignorant use of the word nigger is hurtful, destructive and racist, it is a word that has a place in our history and culture should not be censored when used for academic purposes.

Candace Coleman, 16, is a student at Marymount High School in Los Angeles.

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