14 February 2009

The Word

Some would argue that words should never be our enemies. That if we change our behaviors and attitudes towards some words, thus making them off-limits, we give credence and power to whatever negative connotation the word carries. But in practice this is not always true.
And the word I am talking about is nigger.

Where I come from it is never okay to say that word. My background has been one of extreme care and sensitivity towards the issue of words used by bigots. If I were a person who fell into the category of ‘person of color’ undoubtedly this issue would be of more importance to me. I would probably uphold the values linked with newer and more sensitive phrases like “African American” and “Person of African descent”. Who can it hurt by trying to treat everyone nicely, right? Through formative years of my intellectual development the idea that ‘racism exists and everyone is racist, including you!’ has been conditioned into me.

So coming to Mexico in this respect has been...strange. One of the first days on campus there was an ice cream truck with an ad for a type of chocolate-themed ice cream. The name was, horrifically, “Negrito”. Along with this name, translating to “little negro”, was a drawing of a little boy with an afro holding the said ice cream and looking rather excited. It was shocking. You would never see this in the US, my inner brain proclaimed.

And then I started taking this literature class. And in this class we have read eight short stories, with six of them having the word “nigger”, “niggery”, or some derivation thereof within. Six stories! Maybe one would be ok. Even two or three. The unsettling thing was, we never even had The Talk. You know, The Talk where the teacher sits on their desk and faces the class, and has this real “I’m going to prove I’m a non-racist human” monologue going on. They explain that the word isn’t nice, but at the time of publication it was acceptable, and that the other merits of the book weigh out the use of nigger and make it reasonable to still include in the canon of important literature. That talk we didn’t have. And so I was puzzled.

After asking many many other people of varied races and nationalities about the word nigger it has been explained several times that it is not a wordas highly stigmatized here as in the US. Australians that I am friends with also say that while it is not a nice word, it is not so ‘off-limits’ as it is believed to be in the US. This doesn’t mean that people don’t say ‘nigger’ in the US. On the contrary! But those people are a. black b. some other race, so they feel it is OK to appropriate, c. white people in groups of other white people,
d. people who seconds afterward get verbally berated/beaten up by others, not necessarily black, that are offended, or e. people who get away with it but are secretly (probably) looked down upon by at least one person who was around to hear.

But just because Mexicans feel that they can say nigger it did not make me feel like I could say nigger. And here’s why:
My problem is with what the word represents. This is a word that rose up during and after slavery. It represented an inhuman form of oppression solely executed based on the color of someone’s skin and their assumed inferiority because of it. To me the word nigger represents saying “ok” to racism, kind of like someone who seriously owns a confederate flag. By using it as a word, as a viable word, aren’t we allowing all those outmoded and incorrect attitudes about skin color to have an avenue, to further permeate our collective unconscious? A thought experiment of sorts---if we didn’t have the word war, would it exist? It seems as if this notion of making words ‘unsayable’ is tied to the idea that if the word doesn’t exist then all the bad shockwaves that are connected to the word will wither and die as well. I certainly hope this to be true, but it seems an impossible experiment.

My professor who had assigned all the stories with the word nigger has explained his reasoning for not having The Talk as, “it would do more harm than good”. If it is not a contested word, then why make it one? The jury is still out on this reasoning, namely because this professor is from Texas, US of A. Which is why it was such a huge deal to me in the first place.

Why would an American want to allow this word, signifying ignorance and hatred, out into the air and young people’s minds? This idea about culture and the cultural naysaying of certain words within specific groups and classes of society is a bizarre notion indeed. Because the word nigger is said all the globe round. It is in so many rap and hip-hop songs where the context seemingly makes it ok to say. Not only does context allow or not allow an utterance, it changes the meaning entirely.

Is it possible that a white American, after spending time in Latin America, could become utterly culturally desensitized to such a word? Not only that, but is it possible to insinuate oneself into another culture enough so that the old context and definition fall away and that a new context and meaning take the place? If it is not an offensive word to say in Mexico, does this negate how offensive it is to say ‘nigger’ in the United States?

Please friends, what are your thoughts?


  1. Hi! I've just discovered your blog because of your streetstyle picture in dflavour...
    It's very interesting this post you've writed about the words and its meanings.
    Has you have noticed, say "negro" is no big deal... but we have another words, with etnical implications, that we use to discriminate other people. In the other hand, no one seems worried about being racist or xenophobist, for example: europeans are always worried about everything that concerns nazism, but in here, a 16 years old boy can wear a t-shirt with a svastica in it and almost nobody is going to tell him a word. I don't even know if this (not living conditioned in our way of thinking) is for good or for evil...
    Well, i'll read you.
    And my english is terrible!