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Calling Each Other 'Dear'
By John McWhorter
I get where the people are coming from who are passing symbolic ordinances against young black folk using the N-word with each other, such as Queens Council Member Leroy Comrie's resolution that was passed this week. A battle against that in-group usage of the word is based on a misunderstanding of how humans use language, but it will make not a whisper of difference beyond articles and panel discussions that distract us from more constructive pursuits.
It's not quite as simple as many are putting it lately, that "nigger" is evil while "nigga" is okay. The simple fact is that the intragroup usage and the "slur" usage are different words. There are whites whose everyday dialect renders "nigger" as "nigga," and few would give them a pass. I recall a white, working-class South Phillyite writing out a misspelled sign advertising whiting, a fish popular with black people, and then saying when he thought I was out of earshot, "Doesn't matter - niggas can't read anyway."
It is, then, a matter not of pronunciation but of who uses it. When black men call each other the N-word. it is an affectionate equalizer. Debates over the N-word must begin with the basic fact assumed, not debated, that the N-word has two meanings. That happens to words. Take the word "happen," whose root meant "to succeed" six millennia ago.
Nevertheless, there are people who want us to treat the N-word as a special case, because of the historical associations of the slur usage with slavery and segregation.
But folks, we have to pick our battles and this one is a distinctly unpromising choice. Trying to put a pox on young black men calling each other the N-word is like putting a pox on dreadlocks or dancing. These men use the word as constantly and spontaneously as couples call one another "babe" or "sweetie."
The N-word is now stamped into the heart, and people making earnest pronouncements about its "implications" cannot touch that. I know one prominent and educated commentator on black issues who openly acknowledges using the N-word with friends.
The friendly usage is not as exotic as often thought. Men often fashion terms of abuse into terms of affection: recall the one episode of "Seinfeld" where George Costanza works with men who call each other "bastard" and "SOB" all the time.
Sure, one might ask why black men have opted to use the N-word of all words in this way instead of some other one. One might also ask why its usage has become so much more frequent over the past 20 years. And the answer is that it is a perfect way of plugging in to the unprecedented electric currency of alienation in today's "urban" black culture. Yes, alienation wasn't invented in 1987, but black men in the era of the Scottsboro boys did not emphasize it the way their descendants do.
The current version is modeled on a similar strain in white culture - heavy metal, Sam Kinison, Eric Bogosian, Nirvana - and magnified by a sense that the opposition is a white oppressor. Debate will continue as to how constructive, or even genuine, this posture of alienation from whitey is. However, it is most certainly a pervasive spirit.
As such, the N-word has become part of the warp and woof of black identity,
like berets among Frenchmen back in the day.
To be clear, I have always thought the N-word usage also springs from a certain intraracial inferiority complex. But fighting the word that gives vent to the complex puts the cart before the horse. More apropos would be addressing what these young men have grown up thinking is normal.
John McWhorter is a senior fellow at
the Manhattan Institute.
©2007 The New York Sun
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