Redefining the Word

Dave Sheinin and Krissah Thompson, Washington Post, November 9, 2014

This season, the National Football League is attempting the impossible, a reasoned but dubious mission that has already tripped up an institution as venerable as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, municipalities as large as New York City and countless parents of teenagers across the land. The goal: banning the n-word within the chalk-lined borders of its purview.

As with the previous attempts, the NFL’s “zero tolerance” policy–which gives referees leeway to issue a 15-yard penalty for a first offense and ejection for a second–comes with good intentions: to establish a field of play free of the most racially charged word in American history.

But like the others, it is almost certainly doomed to fail; to be ignored, at best–or mocked and flouted, at worst.

If there is one thing certain about the modern n-word–a shifty organism that has managed to survive on these shores for hundreds of years by lurking in dark corners, altering its form, splitting off into a second specimen and constantly seeking out new hosts, all the while retaining its basic and vile DNA–it is that it defies black-and-white interpretations and hard-and-fast rules.

The word is too essential as an urban slang term to be placed in a casket and buried, as NAACP delegates attempted to do in a 2007 mock “funeral” for the word. It is too ingrained in youth culture to be eliminated from city streets, as the New York City Council attempted with a symbolic resolution banning the word the same year. And more than likely, it will prove too complex and nuanced to be policed by football referees wielding yellow flags and penalties. Never mind the troublesome optics of a group of mostly white NFL executives dictating the language rules of a majority-black player pool.

If anything, in 2014, it is the very notion of banning the n-word that appears dead and fit for burial. It was a long and noble fight, waged largely–but not exclusively–by an older generation for which the word is inseparable from the brutality into which it was born. If there is still a meaningful n-word debate left to have, it is over context, ownership and the degree to which it should be tethered to its awful history–or set free from it.

A word that is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter–as “nigga” is, according to search data on the social media analytics Web site Topsy.com–is almost by definition beyond banning. By comparison, “bro” and “dude”–two of the terms with which the n-word is synonymous to many people younger than 35–are used 300,000 and 200,000 times, respectively. For many of this generation, the word is tossed around unthinkingly, no more impactful than a comma.

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Though the word has long been entrenched in American vernacular, by all accounts it is more prevalent than ever–expanding into new corners of the culture, showing up in places (college debate, Christian rap, video-game culture) where it would have been almost unimaginable a generation ago and no longer following any clear rules about who can say it and who can’t.

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The NFL’s move to ban the n-word–technically, a directive from the league to game officials to aggressively enforce an existing rule barring racial slurs on the playing field, with a particular emphasis on this specific one–came in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents involving the n-word and the league.

In July 2013, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was recorded on video yelling the word menacingly at a country music concert.

Four months later, details began to emerge in the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, in which a white lineman, Richie Incognito, at one point called Jonathan Martin, a black teammate, a “half-nigger” in a voice mail. The NFL suspended Incognito for three months.

That same month, Washington Redskins tackle Trent Williams, who is black, was accused of directing the word at an African American official who was attempting to intervene in a dispute between opposing players that included similar abusive language. Williams denied using the slur to the official, and the official, umpire Roy Ellison, was suspended for one game for using derogatory language toward Williams.

Taken together, the incidents might have signaled to some an n-word problem in the NFL. The Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group that advises the league on diversity issues, certainly thought so, pushing the NFL to adopt its “zero tolerance” stance toward racial slurs–a policy that was met by a firestorm of criticism, with many players and pundits blasting the rule as unfair, or even inherently racist.

This season, several players–including the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, a mixed-race quarterback who is one of the game’s top young stars–have been penalized and fined by the league for saying the word to an opponent.

But any larger exploration of this subject leads to the inevitable conclusion that it isn’t just the NFL that has an n-word problem. It’s all of America.

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One of the biggest problems in confronting the n-word is that, for decades now, there have existed two n-words, one that ends in “er” and one that ends in “a.” For many, they have distinctly different meanings–the “er” version linked to the word’s hateful, racist origins, the other more a term of endearment.

But it isn’t quite that simple. There are those who argue that the versions are not so much distinct words as they are different pronunciations of the same word, with the same vile underpinnings. “You change a vowel or two. It doesn’t change the meaning,” said Dineytra Lee, a dancer and youth advocate in Los Angeles who is of African American and Puerto Rican heritage.

At its essence, the word–in either form–remains inseparable from its basic, historic meaning. Even if you believe the form that ends in “er” and the one that ends in “a” are two distinct words, the latter would not exist were it not for the former. And the former would not exist were it not for the scourge of racism.

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Banning the word, in a sense, is an attempt to exert another degree of power over it. It is a laudable thought in theory, but one that in practice is seemingly impossible, given the word’s vast reach. Even worse, it raises the question of who, exactly, has the right to ban it.

“Y’all birthed the word,” said D.C.-based educator Gabriel Benn, rhetorically addressing white America. “You can’t kill it.”

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The word still possesses its power to rend. Wielded indelicately, it can destroy careers and reputations. It still divides the country, even within African American communities, on the question of whether it should be banished to the dark corners of history or embraced as a term of endearment. None of that is new.

But what is new is the growing acceptance and use of the word in different settings and among different groups. That growth has been fueled by the generation–more multicultural and tolerant than any before it–that came of age during the 1980s and 1990s, as the n-word exploded anew in popular culture.

But this generation has almost no personal connection to the civil rights struggle and doesn’t equate the word, at least not exclusively, with racism. Perhaps these Americans had parents or grandparents who felt strongly about the inappropriateness of the n-word, but they grew up themselves with a level of comfort with it, and wouldn’t be as stringent in raising their own children.

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Removed from its loaded context, and viewed only through the lens of linguistics, the n-word is a marvel of modern language–springing from the Latin word for black (“niger”), obtaining its awful power during the era of slavery, retaining that power through a century of lynchings and Jim Crow segregation, then splitting off into a second, distinct word that means pretty much the exact opposite of the original.

There is no other word like it in the English language, encompassing both the ugliest sort of hate and a communal, if subversive, sense of love and affection, depending upon who is saying it and in what context. It can be wielded as a tool of both white racism and black empowerment. Its most accomplished practitioners can drop it into conversation as a noun, adjective, verb or interjection.

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A Jay Z concert is like a social experiment on the reach of the word in modern culture. At his show at Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium in July–where he shared the spotlight and the stage with his wife, Beyoncé, on their “On the Run” tour–the sold-out crowd was a healthy mix of black, white, Asian and Hispanic fans. The rapper invited everyone to sing along to “Jigga My Nigga,” and the lyrics, which helped take the song to the top of the rap charts in 1999, echoed throughout the crowd in melodious unison. Beyoncé joined in on a later track, mouthing the words “I’m the nigga” as her husband performed.

Janeace Slifka, a 27-year-old white woman who self-identifies as a feminist and works as a digital strategist in the District, stood in the upper deck with her husband, swaying side to side as Beyoncé and Jay Z performed. She sang along at times, but when “nigga” appeared in the lyrics she let her voice drop out, while thousands of others kept singing.

“I didn’t find myself uncomfortable at all, but I can’t imagine singing along, either,” she said. “I wouldn’t even do it in my car, let alone in a crowd of 50,000 people–even if I was being encouraged.”

Some artists, including superstar Kanye West, have been known to grant white concertgoers permission to keep singing along even when the lyrics contain the word–an offer that is frequently accepted wholeheartedly.

“He said, ‘Okay, white people–this is your only opportunity. So I want you to sing at the top of your lungs,’ ” Benn, the D.C. educator, recounted about a recent West concert. “And they did it.”

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At the University of Oklahoma this year, a pair of African American debaters won eight rounds in the prestigious National Debate Tournament, before losing in the semifinals, by employing an argument that made liberal use of the n-word–a strategy intentionally tailored to challenge existing norms in debate.

In Atlanta, Christian rapper Sho Baraka reached the top of the U.S. gospel music charts (and peaked at 12th on the rap charts) with an album, “Talented 10th,” that makes judicious use of the n-word–a development that roiled the world of Christian pop music.

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Spend some time in the hallways of a high school and you are likely to hear not only African Americans using the word among themselves, but also Asians, Latinos and whites. They probably don’t mean any harm, but it is jarring to anyone with the perspective of an older generation.

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John McWhorter, a Columbia University linguistics professor and contributing editor at the New Republic, peers into the future and envisions a day when the word is omnipresent and universal. “Frankly, we’re just going to have to get used to it,” he said. “It’s a generational shift, and it’s permanent. There will be potbellied middle-aged white men calling each other ‘nigga’ in 30 years.”

Others would question whether such a universal acceptance could ever occur. Despite its expansion, the n-word hasn’t really joined mainstream American culture–just mainstream American youth culture. That it is growing in volume doesn’t necessarily mean it is growing in influence. As has happened throughout history, young people grow up, they take jobs, they have kids and their viewpoints change.

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A United States where everyone is using the n-word at will–where it contains no deeper, outside meaning at all–is difficult to imagine. But no more unimaginable than a country where the word is completely gone. What is far more likely is that the word continues to exist for generations to come–and continues to vex us with the same issues of history, context and ownership that it does now.

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