Shortly after the Michael Richards “n-word” uproar, I read a column in the News-Press (a Fort Myers, Florida daily) by Leonard Pitts, a Miami Herald columnist of African descent, entitled: “Richards wakes black people to N-word hate.” In the column Pitts asserts that if you are “black” and you use the word “nigger” or “nigga” that means you hate yourself and, of course, every other person of African descent. In addition, in reference to the word “nigger,” he writes, “…this word still hates us.” Can a word hate? In any event, he was responding to the incident where Michael Richards, former stand-up comic wannabe, laced his response to hecklers with the word “nigger.” I had intended to script a short, comical, tongue in cheek response to this entire episode, but reading this column prompted me to take it just a tad further
In this response, I’ll address three elements of Mr. Pitts’s column that I find questionable: 1) His contention that if you are of African descent and use the terms “nigger” or “nigga,” then you hate yourself and the entire group of people who are of African descent; 2) the use of his access to the public forum to demean those who hold a perspective different from his, in a manner similar to those who use the term “nigger” in attempts to demean people of African descent; and 3) his use of the socially acceptable and disingenuous “N-word” substitute for the term “nigger.”
Regarding the self hatred element, I don’t use the terms “nigger” in public discourse because I know that it would be offensive to others, and I would have no reason to use it in private, unless it was to refer to someone else’s use of the term. I don’t use the term “nigga,” because I don’t happen to move in circles where that term is used as a matter of course. Were I a part, and/or interacting with members, of a culture wherein the term “nigga” is used affectionately, or as a term equivalent to “person,” I would have no problem using the term. I don’t think I would hate myself or anyone else anymore than I do now if I did use the term. It seems rather absurd to me to contend that merely using a word that represents a derogatory manner of referring to a group to which you ostensibly belong constitutes self-hatred. But then, I’m sure Mr. Pitts and I have different definitions of hatred. It seems to me more “hateful” to try to force your interpretations of a word on others as opposed to accepting their interpretations of the same word.
There are many who hold a perspective different from Pitts’s who don’t have access to a daily newspaper column to publish those perspectives. Among these individuals are language scholars who make it their life’s work to understand language and how members of various groups use it, and they have had their perspectives published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Some of these individuals contend that the co-opting or reversing of word connotations, as in the conversion of “nigger” to “nigga,” is one technique used by slaves to thwart their oppressors, as a form of rebellion against the powers that be. Utilizing language in such a way would constitute neither self-hatred nor hatred of one’s subjective identity group. I think it important for the uninformed who read Mr. Pitts’s column to know that many of the “pseudo-intellectuals” at whom Pitts (surely a “real” intellectual) aimed his ad hominem attack are scholars of African descent who are well respected in their fields.
Pitts notes that “anyone with the barest historical memory already knew” that the term “nigger” (and by association, “nigga”) is hateful, “demeans, denigrates, diminishes and denies,” and wonders how come it has taken Richards’s racialized outburst to stimulate this call to arms. He refers to as a “Negro” anyone one who provides “pseudo-intellectual justification for that self-loathing,” i.e., anyone who offers an argument for the legitimate usage of “nigga.” I assert that those who have any understanding of the historical identity politics of naming within the African American community would know that calling an African American a “Negro” is tantamount to calling him/her an “Uncle Tom,” which would be the equivalent of an individual of European descent calling him/her a “nigger.” It seems to me that Pitts intends to demean, denigrate, diminish and deny anyone who doesn’t share his perspective on the terms in question. Let those who live in glass houses…
I can certainly understand Mr. Pitts’s distaste for the words “nigger” and “nigga” and for those who use them. During my sophmore year in high school, I had only been playing tennis for a year or so when I made it to the quarterfinals of the high school state championships. Early in the match, I was doing well against one of the top seeds in the tournament. We were changing sides after a game and he said something to me using the word “nigger.” “What did you say?” came my classic response, complete with temperature skyrocketing, heartbeat thumping, fists clenching, and generally making ready for some well-warranted violence…at least that’s how I looked at things when I was less mentally and emotionally mature. I was practically apoplectic during that episode, and it was 30 years ago so it’s kind of hazy now, but I think the coaches had to come onto the court to keep me from outright physical assault. I do remember spending the rest of the match trying to hit my opponent with the ball, seething the entire match. I don’t believe we exchanged the customary handshake after the match.
Essentially, that kid was smarter than I was at the time and he knew the impact of the word. I don’t know if he was a racist, but he certainly used the word guaranteed to get you labeled “racist” and draw the most extreme responses. I responded extremely in that instance and ended up losing the match. His use of the word controlled me as easily as if he had a leash around my neck and a whip in his hand. Being a teenager at the time, my personal identity was tentatively forming and heavily invested in perceived group belonging. Any perceived attack on that identity was guaranteed to elicit my most intense ego-defense mechanism.
As I have matured, I have come to understand that my personal identity does not need to be so heavily invested in physical characteristics that are used to define group membership, especially since I had no say in possessing those characteristics. I have matured enough to learn that my self-worth is not contingent upon what someone else thinks or says, especially when that individual has no knowledge of who I am, and is so underdeveloped a human being as to resort to racial slurs. My identity is more invested in how I treat others (as in whether or not I demean them with my words or actions) rather than how I look or how others think of or treat me. I have even matured enough to believe that others have the right to use the words “nigger” and “nigga” regardless of whether I find them offensive or not. Whether others have the right to use the two terms, one a racial slur, the other a co-option and positive redefinition of the slur, is a debate that will continue to wage.
The final thought on this matter that I will explore here pertains to Mr. Pitts’s (and just about anyone who holds a public position) use of the term, “n-word” as a substitute for “nigger.” It seems disingenuous and somewhat asinine to write and say “N-word,” when everyone who sees and hears it understands that it means “nigger.” Are we that foolish? Sorry to offend here, but it’s just to make a point: Who is the F-word A-word that came up with the notion that all you have to do is not say the whole word and that makes it okay? And how is it that so many “smart” people have gone along with this piece of brilliance. I can just see the characters from the Guinness commercial now (replete with Irish brogue): “Since they’re always complaining about ‘nigger,’ let’s use ‘N-word,’ that way they can’t say we’re being racist for saying ‘nigger.’ BRILLIANT!”
Let me indulge in a little more brilliance for a moment. Substitute the Guinness characters with two Gangsta Rappers:
Rapper/Gangsta 1: Yo, wassup my Nigga?
Rapper/Gangsta 2: Yo dawg, we can’t use “Nigga” no mo man. The NAACP, Reverend Jesse, Big Al, and all da peeps wit da juice is down on it son.
Rapper/Gangsta 1: Word?
Rapper/Gangsta 2: Yeah dawg. Pretty soon we ain’t gon be able to use “bitch” no mo.
Rapper/Gangsta 1: Hell, I don’t use “bitch” no how. I say “beeyatch”
Rapper/Gangsta 2: Right! Listen mah n-word, here’s da poop: as long as we don’t say the actual word, we’s straight. Everybody’s using “N-word” now dawg.
Rapper/Gangsta 1: “N-word?”
Rapper/Gangsta 2: Yeah, everybody know what it mean, but as long as you don’t use the real word, you ahight
Rapper/Gangsta 1: Oh snap! I got it! Check this: I’m straight up spitting mother-f-word-ing b-words if you don’t like it, f-word you cuz I’m bad like dat and so f-word-ing smart it’s absurd
Rapper/Gangsta 2: Yeah, yeah, I’m down wid it. Check ma flow: Yo mother-f-words kiss ma black a-word, Ahma kick da s-word back in you face cuz you jes a punk from da pas
Rapper/Gangsta 1: Yeah mah n-word, ain’t no stopping a n-word now!
Both Together: “Brilliant!”
Pretty silly, don’t you think? I understand that hearing the word “nigger” stirs deeply rooted feelings, calls to the forefront the knowledge that we, the group of people classified as “black,” “of color,” or “of African descent,” were and still are considered inferior by many. I understand that the word “nigga” is a derivative of that word, and therefore holds the same connotation for many. My question is: “How is saying “n-word,” which everyone knows means “nigger,” any different? If Richards had used “n-word” instead of “nigger” would that have made his tirade better? Is it that in using “n-word” we acknowledge that there is something to be talked about, but that something is so heinous that we can’t even say it out loud?
This discourse about the “N-word” has prompted me to think about some other terms that we use. In particular, it seems that we are able to use the term “bitch” on television, at work, and just about anywhere without there being an outcry, without the users losing their jobs, and without celebrities and intellectuals coming out against those who use it. Now why is that? It seems to me that to call a woman a “bitch” is no less degrading than calling someone of African descent a “nigger.” Is it okay to use the term “bitch” because women as a group are somehow less deserving of dignity than people of African descent as a group? Is it because women themselves use the term? Is it okay to use the term “bitch” because women’s rights groups haven’t raised enough of a stink? Is it because women didn’t go through a historical phenomenon as properly labeled as slavery was? According to Mr. Pitts’s logic, anyone who uses the term “bitch,” regardless of context, in reference to a woman must hate women, and any woman who uses it must hate herself as well as all women. As you know, I don’t buy Mr. Pitts’ logic, but if you do and you use “N-word” instead of “nigger,” then you might consider using the term “B-word” if you use the term “bitch.”
In closing, I’d like to call on all socially conscious and conscientious women and men reading this to join PAWW (People for the Advancement of Weary Women- women weary of being called and treated like bitches), an organization that lobbies for the use of the socially acceptable term “B-word” instead of “bitch.” By the way, I don’t use the term “bitch” either for the same reasons that I don’t use the term “nigger.” It has little to do with hate, and a lot to do with common courtesy to my fellow human beings regardless of skin color, gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, language, or ability-including intellectual.