BY: VAIBHAVI MENON
It’s one thing to ban a word because it is a pitiless slur often used amid physical violence. That black people use it—and have forever—as a term of endearment among one another complicates matters somewhat, but whites who ask “Why can’t we use it if they do?” have always struck me as disingenuous. It isn’t rocket science to understand that words can have more than one meaning, and a sensible rule is that blacks can use the word but whites can’t. However, since the 1990s this rule has undergone mission creep, under which whites are not only not supposed to level the word as a slur, but are also not supposed to even refer to it. That idea has been entrenched for long enough now that it is coming to feel normal, but then normal is not always normal. It borders, as I suggested above, on taboo. There are societies—such as many in Australia—in which it is forbidden to use ordinary language with in-laws, and this taboo is often extended even to referring to in-laws in conversation. Upon marrying, one must master a whole different vocabulary for talking to and/or about, for example, one’s mother-in-law. Many are familiar with the click sounds in Xhosa. However, clicks didn’t originate in Xhosa, but in lesser-known languages spoken by hunter-gatherers. Xhosa speakers, it is thought, adopted clicks from these other communities as part of an effort to create avoidance language, substituting them for ordinary sounds in Xhosa.
Practices like this sound neat to Americans—but also arbitrary. We understand that the practice is rooted in respect, but can’t help thinking that the official practice has drifted somewhat beyond what logic would dictate. The idea that nonblacks cannot even soberly refer to the N-word verges on this kind of thing. Note the word verges: The N-word is a slur and loaded in a way that, say, asking your mother-in-law what she’d like for dinner is not; sparing usage and serious caution are warranted. Respect, nevertheless, has morphed into a kind of genuflection that an outsider might find difficult to understand. There are matters of art involved, of course. Even when discussing rather than wielding the word, people—including black ones—might avoid barking out the word any more than necessary. (Or avoid writing it more than necessary, as in this very essay.) Surely, its history means that it provokes negative associations; it doesn’t sound good. Perhaps even the weird word niggardly ought to be let go. Accidentally, it just sounds too much like that other word to pass muster, especially when synonyms like stingy are so readily available. Those who use it should not be made to feel unfit for employment, as has actually happened.
But a white student so horrified at Sheck’s uttering the N-word within the context of its usage by a black, crusading anti-racist figure such as James Baldwin that the student reports her to the authorities? It surely felt like Doing the Right Thing—but the problem is that when Spike Lee’s film of (more or less) that title was playing in theaters, graduate students would have done no such thing. Some will object that we moderns are more advanced than those ‘80s troglodytes, or at least that the discussion has progressed, enrichened, that justice is being better served. And I am under no illusion that this is merely a matter of a certain kind of white performative wokeness. Quite a few black people, including authors of whole books on the word, would agree that Sheck should never utter that word at all for any reason. We might ask, though, what the reason for a diktat like that is. It conveys, certainly, a kind of power. Inevitably, here and there a nonblack person will either use the word in an unsanctioned way or, just as often, be revealed to have done so in the past. If the word is sinful even when referred to, then the ground is especially fertile for black Americans or white allies to express outrage. Enter the Teaching Moment, when we are reminded of black people’s plight in a racist nation, our history in savagery and dismissal, the power of even subliminal racist bias.