September 28th, 2016

When I was seven or eight, one of my aunts gave me a globe of the world for Christmas. I immediately sat down and started running my finger over the surface, reading the strange country names. When I got to West Africa I found Nigeria and Niger. I proclaimed to the room, Look! There’s a country called nigger.

OK, at that young age my spelling wasn’t that great, but I knew the word.

My aunt quickly told me that we didn’t say that word. I don’t know where I knew the word from, but clearly someone, an adult thinking that little ears weren’t around or a playmate showing off, had used the word and even then I knew that the word had some hidden power.

I’ve never used that word since, except when I was calling out a xenophobic bigot. The word has leapt onto the media stage in recent weeks with the verbal attacks on Colin Kaepernick, Rodney Axson and the other athletes taking a knee or expressing themselves in other ways during the singing of the Star Spangled Banner to open sporting events.

When I read these stories, I almost always see a mention similar to this:

But just five days ago, @j0es_ tweeted that “Colin Kaepernick need to go back to africa dumb f–king n—-r”. And no, he didn’t censor his words, we did. [Emphasis mine, JH] And weeks earlier, when Eric Reid joined Kaepernick’s protest, @barry0hBama retweeted a Yahoo! story about that with a creative headline: “Colin Kaepernick protests national anthem again, is joined by #n—-r teammate”. Note the hashtag, too, the deliberate push to draw attention to a word with so much racial hatred.

Now, is there anyone reading this, feck, is there anyone on the planet who reads n—-r that doesn’t hear nigger in their head? Once we hear a word, like that little boy at Christmas, we can’t unhear the word. I don’t use the word in public for the same reason I don’t use lots of offensive words I know, they’re offensive. That should not, however, allow us to self censor the offensive words of others when we’re reporting on the offensive use.

I’ll allow that you might argue using n-word or n—-r accomplishes the goal without being offensive, but I just don’t buy that. If we hear the word in our heads, and we do, resorting to code words just makes us look silly and allows, as Lenny Bruce argued, the word to retain power.

We shouldn’t use the word ourselves unless we’re calling out the xenophobic bigots (or the group I call XBATs), but we must not shy away from being responsible adults. Now there will be some who will say that if the niggers can use nigger then I can use nigger. No you can’t. You can’t because your xenophobic bigoted brain doesn’t understand what Wilmore said.

You might be scratching your head at this point, wondering why I used the convoluted phrase xenophobic bigot when most people just use racist. I do so for much the same reason I avoid using terrorism. The other day I found a photocopy left on the machine at school with the headline: Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Race. The document makes a rock-solid case for why race is an artificial concept:

1. Race is a modern idea. Ancient societies, like the Greeks, did not divide people according to physical differences, but according to religion, status, class or even language. The English word “race” turns up for the first time in a 1508 poem by William Dunbar referring to a line of kings.

2. Race has no genetic basis—Not one characteristic, trait or even gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.

3. Human subspecies don’t exist—Unlike many animals, modern humans simply haven’t been around long enough, nor have populations been isolated enough, to evolve into separate subspecies or races. On average, only one of every thousand of the nucleotides that make up our DNA differ one human from another. We are one of the most genetically similar of all species.

I applaud all but one of the points: number nine:

Race isn’t biological, but racism is still real. Race is a powerful social idea that gives people different access to opportunities and resources.

All of that is absolutely true. Because all of that is absolutely true, we shouldn’t be talking about an artificial concept that gives people different access to opportunities and resources. The quick response from some will be: What about affirmative action? How, they will argue, can we address, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so well sets the table: Two hundred fifty years of slavery. Ninety years of Jim Crow. Sixty years of separate but equal. Thirty-five years of racist housing policy. without using race?

I don’t know. If I did I’d probably be sitting on the Supreme Court. Maybe we can’t. From where I sit, however, this is a linguistic fence—and as a writer I am firmly committed to the truth that words matter— we must hurdle.


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