Ah the N-word. A six-letter combination so toxic that almost no publication will print it. A word that has been buried and thrown on the trash heap of time many, many times, yet it still rises like a zombie undead thing creeping across the countryside. A word that has destroyed careers for those uttering it, yet it can be an endearment to others.
The N-word is so embedded in black culture that some claim that it's okay to use... if you're black. And it's so embedded in white racist culture that it is the ultimate epithet in reference to black people.
The word has been in the news lately. Last week Genesee County Land Bank sales manager Phil Stair told a reporter from Truth Against the Machine that "Flint has the same problems as Detroit — fucking niggers don't pay their bills..."
A few days before that, comedian Bill Maher enflamed controversy on his Friday night HBO program in saying, "I'm a house nigger," when Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska told Maher he would be welcome to work "in the field" of his state.
The ensuing heat led Stair to resign from his job in Genesee County. Although there were calls for HBO to fire Maher, he's still on the job at HBO.
I was raised to never say the word and to my memory I haven't unless I was quoting a comedian such as, well, almost anyone black over the past 40 years. It just won't roll off my tongue the way some sling it around with ease. Maybe it's the fear of the back of mama's hand flying out from the abyss to smack me upside the head for saying the forbidden word. My sister used it with some regularity as a grown-up but she stopped after the embarrassment one Thanksgiving when the word popped out of her son's mouth at the dinner table. He seemed to have no sense that the word was an issue.
To many black people, use of the word is a matter of timing — as in when I say it, that's OK, but when you (white person) say it, that's bad. When it comes down to this you know that we've entered the Twilight Zone.
As comedian Chris Rock says, "Nigger is the nitroglycerin of words. In the wrong hands it can hurt."
However, my sense is that the word is either OK or it's not. White people can't be expected to understand the nuances and vagaries of the word. Its conditions and shadings of meaning. First of all, for the overwhelming majority of white people there is only one use for the word. It's an offensive and contemptuous reference to black people. It almost automatically lights the fuse of any black person who hears it from a white person.
There is no equivalent demeaning or dismissive word to refer to white people. Whitey, honky, ofay, redneck — none of these even approach the power, the divisiveness, or vitriol of the N-word. There are plenty of offensive words for Hispanics and Asians, but again, while they are offensive to those people, they don't have N-word power in the popular culture.
Have you ever heard about a funeral for the word honky? I think not. There was one for the N-word in Detroit during the 2007 NAACP national convention in Detroit. Then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick spoke at the event, saying, "Today we're not just burying the N-word, we're taking it out of our spirit. ... Die N-word, and we don't want to see you 'round here no more."
At the 2008 state of the city address Kilpatrick, who was in the midst of his takedown, said, "In the past 30 days, I've been called a nigger more than any time in my entire life." Which in one sense was playing the race card while he was under duress that eventually took him down and sent him to prison.
The key evidence in the takedown were his text messages with chief of staff Christine Beatty that revealed their affair and nailed Kilpatrick for perjury. Those texts revealed that Kilpatrick wasn't opposed to poetic permutations of the N-word. He used "nigga" and "niggette" as endearing references to Beatty.
The N-word had apparently risen from the grave. It has more lives than a zombie cat.
But let's get back to Stair and Maher. Stair's racist comment was particularly offensive. It was an attack on an entire class of people. Second, it was a lie perpetrated to blame the victims for an offense perpetrated on them. The Flint water crisis came about because officials chose not to add a chemical that would keep lead from leaching into the water from the Flint River at the water processing plant. That's documented and verified. Another thing that troubles me about this attitude may be how Flint and state officials are justifying what happened in their minds.
It's their own fault that we poisoned them. Is this really what officials tell each other when they are alone? Does it make them feel better?
Maher's case is different. While the statement was offensive, Maher didn't use it to smear anyone else. He wasn't vilifying anyone. To an extent, it was self-deprecating. He said, "I'm a house nigger."
Maher has distinguished himself as understanding some nuances of black culture more than the average white guy. This statement displays that. He pointed out that he doesn't work in the fields — a distinction from slavery wherein some blacks, mostly the mixed-race children of slave owners, worked in a more genteel atmosphere than the darker-skinned brothers and sisters. To a certain extent the characterization still lives in black culture as a line between those who have made it to acceptance in the larger culture beyond the hood.
For numerous black rappers and comedians the N-word is money in the bank. With that as part of the landscape I don't see why it should take Maher down. Neither did the majority of callers to The Mildred Gaddis Show last week when the radio host took on the subject.
The power of the N-word is in part the power that black people allow it to have. That doesn't work on me. If someone refers to me that way I don't respond. I refuse to give some ass the power to manipulate my emotions in that way. My position is the conversational equivalent of going limp when the police are dragging you away at a demonstration. You can't push that button in me — at least not enough to get me to freak out.
But I don't go to the other extreme and pepper my language with it. The N-word can indeed be poetic, as many rap lyrics attest to. Check out Drake. He won an armload of Billboard music awards this year and his music is peppered with n-words. Oh, you say he says "nigga" and not the full-on N-word. Well, if that makes it OK then you have to allow whites to say "nigra."
I try not to lay hurtful and demeaning words on anyone. That said, the N-word is so deeply ingrained in our culture that it's not going away anytime soon. We may just need to figure out how to deal with its presence.