Monday, December 26, 2011

Should White people be permitted to use the N-word?

First of all, let me begin by stating how much I hate the phrase “the N-Word.” It makes me feel like I’m infantilizing everyone I talk to. We are adults; we can use adult language when appropriate. But I also know that lots of people will not be very happy if their blog feeds suddenly flash the word “nigger” on their screen. Kids, bosses, and many others may be looking over readers’ shoulders. The word is poison and people should be prepared for the controversy they are about to encounter.

But look at what I did. I used the actual word in the first paragraph. Am I allowed to do that? My short answer is “sometimes,” although as we shall see, the brilliant and very funny blogger at Yo, Is this Racist? is going to disagree with me.

Here is what I’m certain of. I shouldn’t call anyone that name ever, not to their face and not behind their back. Whether I could if I myself were black is a different question. While some people claim no one should ever say it regardless of their race, I think the question about White people using it is more philosophically interesting. Words exist in context and there are plenty of things that can only be said in certain relationships. I’m allowed to say things to my wife that others can’t. The same is true about talking to my daughter, parents, friends, doctors, lawyers, etc. So, there is nothing inherently odd about claiming that Black people can use a word that White people cannot.

There is another reason why I shouldn’t call anyone this word: most people who self-identify as black don’t want me to and nothing gives me the moral authority to override their desires. How people want to be treated is relevant to how we should treat them.

As an aside, notice two difficulties I face in writing the post. The first and most important is that when discussing a group of people that share a common characteristic, it becomes easy to slip into some “they are all identical” mode – “Black people think this; White people think that.” But this is dangerous and dehumanizing. For every general statement I make about any group, there will likely be individuals who don’t share the opinion. Maybe there are black people who want to be called “nigger” by white people. It’s possible but, if so, I've never met any of them.

Next, it is unclear what phrase I should use to refer to the groups in question. “African American” is often used to be polite, but most African non-Americans don’t like “the N-word” either. “Black” is most commonly used in political analysis, but it feels blunt and impersonal. “White” is also problematic. Why not use the term “Caucasian” instead? In short, there will be people who are unhappy with any word choice independent of my typing the word “nigger.” I ask simply that everyone give me the benefit of the doubt and recognize that sometimes philosophy makes us uncomfortable. (What “white” means is going to be a subject of a later blog post.)

So, when can a white person use the term “nigger” if ever? My usual answer is that they can use it when they are referring to the word itself or where not using the word changes the meaning of what they are saying. So, as both Family Guy and The Daily Show point out, reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and calling the character “N-word Jim,” or "slave Jim" violates the literary integrity of the book and changes its power. If I’m teaching a class and using N.W.A. lyrics to illustrate something, I too can use the word if the song does.

Why this is involves some technical philosophy, so bear with me. There is a difference between nigger and “nigger.” The first refers to a person while the second refers to a term. Quote marks indicate that we are concerned with language, not the object the language is pointing too. So, famously (in philosophy circles, anyway) the sentence “snow is white” is said to be true if and only if snow is white. This is referred to as disquotation.

In other words, I should probably never refer to niggers, but when teaching, discussing literature, and writing this blog post, I can refer to “niggers,” assuming, of course, that I’m trying to make a meaningful philosophical point. (This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to point to someone and say, “look at this person, what a quote nigger unquote because that’s not just being racist, it’s being racist and pretentious.) As a responsible teacher, I do have the moral authority to make people uncomfortable if there is a good pedagogical reason to do so.

Now, I have always found this distinction between words with and without quotes helpful. It allows me to talk about what I need to talk about while still being a good person (I believe) and while offending only the smallest subset of people. (Whether people have the right not to be offended will also be the subject of a later post.) But the blogger at Yo, Is This Racist? has made me second-guess myself.

The blog is what it sounds like. People write in asking if something is racist and the blogger, whose name is Andrew, I think, answers as humorously as possible while still being informative. After responding to a string of questions asking about justifications for allowing White people to use the word, Andrew wrote the following:

“basically there is only one thing in the world that White people aren’t allowed to do, and the forbidden fruit drives them absolutely fucking crazy.”

I love this response. Of course, there are plenty of things White people aren’t allowed to do (murder, rape, etc.) but the point is well taken, and my entire post is just an excuse to talk about this observation. It does drive me crazy that I can’t use the word. It doesn’t upset me at all that I can’t call anyone nigger or refer to them as such, I have no desire to. But the idea that I can’t use it in the classroom under certain conditions of appropriateness (or that there are, by definition, no conditions of appropriateness) -- the notion that by typing the word in this paragraph I am being racist -- I find this baffling. We should be able to talk about these things, at least on the meta-level. It is how we grow and learn.

But, the fact that I fit the blogger’s description of a White person being driven crazy makes me seriously reconsider my position. Am I "safe" from accusation because I'm using it t teach? I think so. In scholarly contexts, when we are talking about the word itself, does the inquiry and self-awareness not contain the violence inherent in the word just enough to allow people to discuss it? Or, in the end, am I just kidding myself? Is the word forbidden for White people in any form whether I like it or not?

In the end, I suppose, the question I’m asking can be boiled down to this: despite my attempts at being thoughtful and respectful,… is this blog post itself racist? I don't think it is, but I could very well be wrong.

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  1. I cannot recall anyone that I know using the word except once, by a black friend.

    I regret the loss of the word 'niggardly', which was a perfectly good word unassociated with race.

  2. That is a really good reference and evidence of how emotional people get about the word. For those who don't know what JayNicks refers to, here is an article from 1999:

  3. I really like this question. The phrase "be permitted" seems to imply its a moral issue not a civil one. And morally I would have to say that it is about intention and not actual speech. To say "nigger" in a passive way to refer to the word itself, such as the writing of this question cannot be considered immoral. However, it would be immoral if it is used as an insult, much the same way that "retard" is offensive if it is used insultingly. The final situation is of course when white people use the word in the same way that many rappers do, as a compliment or sign of affiliation. It seems as though, in that instance it most certainly is not immoral to use "nigger". To claim it is wrong for white people is to make an unnecessary division based on shaky ground. for example is an albino with two black parents black? Or a white child with a black mother and white father? the division is revealed to be utterly pointless. Furthermore it seems like the word itself seems to be taking on more positive connotations in certain instances. For sure when an aging white calls a black "nigger" it was meant to be offensive. However rappers and many black and white youth often use the term neutrally or even positively, much the same way Americans in the east highjacked the term "Yankee" or followers of Jesus of Nazareth adopted the originally insulting moniker of "Christians" Hopefully one day the term will lose its negative connotations or fall out of use entirely, but at the current time the morality seems clear.

  4. DISCLAIMER: middle-class white boy talking. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    I agree it's important to talk about these things, and I think I'm probably very naive on the subject. Here is my impression: that blacks calling each other "nigger" and associating the word with crime, lust, and poor grammar only serves to drive the racism wedge deeper. I'd prefer if the word fell out of use and we could "all just get along." In other words, anyone using the word, even blacks and white youth, just keeps the issue alive.

    On the other hand, Greg O. brings up an interesting possibility, that "nigger" might come the mean the same as "Christian" one day. It would be ironic if for so many decades people have sought to remove an insult from our vocabulary, only to have it return as a compliment.

    Either way, as long as people are judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" I'll be happy.