Wed, 08 Nov 2006

Nigger

There. I've said it. In public. The N word. I must be a racist, right? Only racists say the "N" word. But why is "nigger" so powerful? Do racists create its power to shock? No. It doesn't shock them. Blacks have given this word its power. Blacks can take that power away. Read on.

From time to time, people accuse economists of being indifferent to the issue of power. For example, some people defend unions as being a natural reaction to the power of an employer over the employee. The employer can find another employee easier than the employee can find another job -- or so goes the theory. It is true that power always affects economic relationships, but it's not true that one class always has power over another. I try not to ignore power.

"Nigger" is a word of power, and I don't like that.

Let the word roll off your tongue lovingly. Nigger.

Say it again. Nigger. And again. Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. Say it enough times so that it loses all ability to shock. Nigger. Nigger. And more, until it loses the ability even to offend. Nigger. Nigger. And more, until it has no meaning. Nigger. Nigger. What a funny little word is nigger! Who nigs, anyway, and what's wrong with nigging?

Quaker used to be an insult. Quaker, like in shaking in his boots. Like in coward. Mormon used to be an insult too. So did queer. So did dyke. The trouble with taking offense at nigger is that it empowers the user. It gives them a power to shock, to offend, to insult. It turns a word into a permanent edifice to racism. Taking ownership of an insult takes away power from the would-be insultor. It forces them to work, to create another insult. Yet it is of no avail, because the new insult can be stripped from them, by accepting it with love.

Learn to love nigger. Love is the only way to destroy the word's power.

UPDATE 11/9: I received email from H. Lewis Smith, the author of Bury that Sucka!. He objects to the black community's internal use of nigger as a friendly self reference, but when used by people outside of the community, it is an insult. I agree with him. If the power of the word is to be destroyed it can only be done through consistency. I think it can be best destroyed with a "Yes, I'm a nigger" attitude. It seems to me like he thinks that if black people stop using it, so will everyone else (see below). I disagree with him there. As long as there are racists, and as long as racists can offend by using it, the word will be used.

UPDATE 11/12: Lewis writes again to clarify: he wants blacks to stop using nigger because it's a form of self-loathing. He fully expects racists to continue using it regardless of what blacks do. In this, he and I are diametrically opposed. I think the solution is greater acceptance and self-identification among blacks (with the goal being to replace its pejorative meaning with a mundane one); he thinks the solution is rejection by blacks (who are, after all, the major user of the word these days -- it's not acceptable for whites to use it even in quotes. For example, St. Lawrence County is currently trying a white drug dealer for murder, and his attorney cautioned the jury that even though he might "use the N-word" that shouldn't prejudice them against him. When somebody on the jury said that they didn't know what the N-word was, he spelled it out for them, but still couldn't say it.)

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