Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Doing things with the N-word
Should we stop using the N-word? And when I say “we,” I mean all of my readers and possible readers (both black and non-black). Should we stop using the N-word? I’m not going to answer this question here, but suggest a better strategy for answering it.
Many of the N-word’s opponents point to the historical and current use of the word to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. Briefly, the argument runs like this: Throughout American history, the N-word has been used to degrade and demean African-Americans. Its use has been (and continues to be) a source of pain, rage and sadness for African-Americans. Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.
This argument,in various forms, has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But it shouldn’t have.
The argument, it seems, assumes that if a word is ever used to cause harm, its use should be prohibited. But this can’t be right. If one were to abide by this principle, one would have to also prohibit the use “boy,” (“Come here boy” (said to a black man) “girl,” (“You’re just a girl, what do you know?”) “trash” (“You’re all just a bunch of trash.”) and “tool” (“You’re such a tool.”). Clearly this principle can’t be true. We shouldn’t prohibit the use of a word just because it is sometimes used to cause harm.
Reflecting on the harmful uses of the word will not alone allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the N-word.
Other opponents of the N-word point to the word’s meaning to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. An argument along these lines could be understood as follows: The N-word just means something like “one who is lazy, stupid and generally genetically inferior because of his or her African ancestry.” No person (or group) fits this description. If this is the case, to address person (or group) by using the N-word is necessarily to harm that person (or group). Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.
This argument too has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But, like the previous argument, it shouldn’t have.
The argument assumes that the N-word has only one meaning. But this doesn’t seem right. If the N-word had only one meaning, then one would have to view the following statements as necessarily false: “That N-word works really hard,” “That N-word is crazy smart.” But these statements aren’t necessarily false. If these statements aren’t necessarily false, then the N-word doesn’t just mean “one who is lazy, stupid….”
If the N-word just meant “one who is lazy, stupid…” then we would have good reason to stop using the N-word. But the N-word, it seems, doesn’t just mean this. The word seems to have a least one alternative meaning.
So, neither reflecting on the harmful uses of the word nor attempting to pin down the meaning of the word will not allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the word. So, how should we go about answering the question?
My suggestion is this. To answer the question “Should we stop using the N-word?” we should focus our attention on the question “What do we (and what can we) do with the N-word and do we want to do any of these things?”
Obviously, the things we do can be described in many ways. Think about my marking my 2008 presidential ballot for Barack Obama. This action can be described in many ways. I then voted for Barak Obama and bubbled in a space on a ballot card and moved my pencil and moved my hand and helped to elect the first black president and voted in person for the first time. In marking my ballot for Obama, I also did all of these other things.
Likewise, on any occasion on which one uses the N-word, one can be described as doing any number of things. A white bigot, in saying “I hate N-words”, in a situation in which African-Americans can hear his words, expresses his hatred toward African-Americans and offends the African-Americans within earshot and signals to the other possible bigots in the room that he is on their side and brings to the surface the pain that those African-Americans associate with the word and shows himself to be someone that should not be allowed to occupy a position of power and influence. The white bigot would do all of these things in using the N-word on this occasion.
And, clearly, an African-American male, in saying “I love y’all N-words” to his African-American friends, also does many things. He tells his friends that he loves them and draws a connection between his love for his friends and that fact that his friends are African-American and, possibly, offends those friends who do not like to be referred to by the N-word.
What is done in using the N-word is (at least partially) a function of the situation in which the word is used. And, as such, we must think about the various situations in which we use (or could use) the N-word and what we do (or would thus do) in using the N-word, to determine whether or not we should continue to use the N-word.
And if we decide that we should continue to use the word, reflection on what is done in using the word on various occasions will allow us to determine when its use would be appropriate.
As I mentioned, I do not answer the larger question here. I’ll leave this task up to you.
Posted by Brandon Hogan at 3:46 PM