N-word still an insult

Dr Glenville Ashby
Dr Glenville Ashby

Blacks have been called by many derogatory names: gator bait, bluegum, buffie, and coon, just to name a few. But of all the slurs there is one that stands alone, if only for its sheer evocative power. Historically, the use of the N-word has been concomitant with violence, death, humiliation, subjugation and every conceivable experience that defiles humanity. Unfortunately, it has outlived slavery and has been even borrowed, serving as suffixes to inflict pain on other races. Case in point: The word is used after “Asian” to defame Filipinos; and “Timber” to spew hatred upon Native Americans. For sure, the N-word is most universally understood, its meaning unequivocal.

Over the last two decades the term has resurfaced—embedded in the colloquy of inner city black youth—becoming a fixture in the sub-cultural lyrics of rap artists. Vexingly and alarmingly, it is used as a supposed form of endearment —refashioning a taboo into an innocuous greeting, a twisted show of solidarity—and even a generic sobriquet. In doing so, proponents have changed the etiology of the word and have “abrogated” its original meaning and intent. Interestingly, educator Arthur Spear, using the revised version of the word, wrote that the N-word “is evaluatively neutral in terms of its inherent meaning; it may express positive, neutral or negative attitudes.” And Kevin Cato, author of  N—-r: Language, History and Modern Day Discourse, observed that the term was powerless when used among friends.


The argument here is that the word is desensitised, even romanticised, through repetitive usage. But despite this misguided and self-destructive indulgence, it remains objectionable and offensive in many mainstream quarters. There is an easy explanation. Like the misogynistic terms “ho” and “b—h,” also part of rap’s “lingua franca,” the N-word cannot be redeemed. Recently, players in the English Premier League were fined and suspended. Equally, if not more troubling, is the case of several female basketball players at Kenmore East High School in New York who were disciplined for using the slur as part of the locker room “pep” ritual.


That said, it is with sheer irony that some blacks have adopted the word—although it continues to be used to inflict emotional pain—to remind them of their lot during one of history’s most tyrannical chapters. What then would possess young blacks to nonchalantly use such a loaded term with such flippancy? The response by black scholar Cornell West to this disturbing trend has been tepid. Prof West stated that “there is a seductive rhythm with the word that goes hand and hand with how language is used, and “you are not going to get folks to stop using words like that.” And rap mogul Russell Simmons called for a moratorium on the word. But thus far there remains division in the ranks of influential blacks. This is disturbing, if only because of the indefensibility of this opprobrious word. To create some veneer of acceptability around it is inconceivable. What a leap of faith to associate that word with endearment and camaraderie, especially when this perceived brotherhood cannot translate into economic empowerment and racial solidarity.

What comforting to racial extremists who watch on the sidelines as blacks desecrate their image, as they give chutzpah to the single word used to define them—for centuries—from slavery through Jim Crow and beyond. My sociological stand against the N-word is unswerving. But I would be remiss not to inject a psycho-spiritual aspect to the argument. It is no secret that words are weighted with a metaphysical power. They can inspire, or serve as a destructive force. Over time, the N-word has created an existential blight, an injurious mental construct that has impacted the lives of millions. I am reminded of that timeless sage, Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha), who counselled: “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care, for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or evil.” And in Proverbs 18:21, we read: “Death and life is in the power of the tongue.”


Indeed, words can be psychological sticks and stones. They do harm. In fact, if psychiatrist and psychosynthesis pioneer Carl Jung were alive, he would argue that the N-word exists as an archetype that has overtly and subliminally impacted on a people for centuries, unknowingly creating psychological havoc whenever reinforced through repetition. Maybe this explains the position of some ethnic groups who hawkishly guard against stereotypical portrayals and ethnic slurs—privately and publicly. So again, I ask: Why then do black youths capriciously spew such an invective slur at each other, well aware of its history? Why do black academicians attempt to intellectualise and defend its use, knowing fully well that it belongs to a subcutaneous repertoire, oftentimes linked to intra-race thuggery and violence?


The answer is rooted in the constitution of the “oppressed mindset,” and the perverse form of identity it engenders overtime. Psychological studies on trauma (including cross-generational) will bear this out. Decades before his passing, the iconic Richard Pryor disavowed the further use of the N-word. He once wrote: “I decided to take the sting out of it, as if using it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness… Said it over and over like a preacher saying hallelujah.” After a trip to Kenya, Pryor, feasting on Kenyans and their culture, had an epiphany and said of the experience: “There are no n—–s here. The people here have their self-respect and their pride… To this day I wish I’d never said the word… It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. Neither did I.”

Pryor was an incomparable performer, a legend, but his contribution to this discourse is his greatest moment and legacy. And as if moved by the ghost of Pryor, many are beginning to understand the gravity of this issue. Five years ago in Detroit, thousands attended a symbolic funeral with horse-drawn carriage and pine casket. The N-word was laid to rest. But like the undead in a horror flick, it has proven resilient. Clear-ly, its undoing will require an overwhelming and relentless effort. Today, I exhort students, parents, black leaders, artists, and educators to stand united to combat this egregious form of self-poisoning through education at institutional and grassroot levels. There is just no place for this word in the media, at home, at school—anywhere.


• Dr Glenville Ashby is the New York correspondent for the Guardian Media Group

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