Home > Uncategorized > On Offensive Words, Part One

On Offensive Words, Part One

Disclaimer: The language used in this blog post may be offensive and hopefully makes readers at least as uncomfortable as it makes the author to write. However, it felt important to write this particular post free of euphemisms. I have been thinking of writing this post for over a year and was constantly worried about being viewed as insensitive. I can only hope that I have worded my thoughts appropriately.

To my knowledge, the word nigger is the most powerful word in the English language. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve uttered it aloud, and all were quotations; and all were whispered no matter the setting. Typing it feels strange. I’m certain that when it comes time to press “publish” on this post, I will think more than twice about it. My father wrote for a newspaper and once made a typo writing the word “bigger.”  The n-key is just next to the b-key, you see. It slipped through the cracks and somehow got published. Our whole family was tense for days about the potential consequences. I’ve retold that story dozens of times. I always manage to do it without speaking the word. One little word, six letters–they fill me with fear.

But to focus on my fear is missing the point of the word’s power. Wrapped up in this little word, to borrow from a recent Atlantic magazine cover, are 250 years of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, and 60 years of separate but equal. Wrapped in that word are lynchings and cross burnings. Wrapped in that word are oppression and segregation and violence. It’s all right there packed into one word, giving it so much charge, so much bite, that a single utterance can label the speaker a racist and ruin the day (at least) of the spoken-to. It’s a word further complicated with reclamation attempts, generational gaps, cultural appropriation, music…. but the complications do nothing to mitigate the power of the word. It is a terrifying and devastating word.

There’s something about that power that I resent a little. I hate that a word so heavily-charged exists that it can eviscerate someone’s self image or career in a heartbeat. I find the power of the word potentially damaging. I find it harmful. No one likes heavily-concentrated power. If it were up to me, I’d do everything I could to prevent putting so much power into any single word. It’s too late for nigger. The power is there. It’s real. It’s palpable. I honestly can’t think of another word like it in that respect. Maybe faggot comes the closest (I can tell by how uncomfortable it makes me to write it), but by and large, few words–if any–have become universally known by their more acceptable euphemism, in this case “the n-word.”

But that may not last for long. A funny thing is happening. These days, it seems everyone is trying to create more n-words. You’ve likely all heard about the pledge to end the r-word, retard(ed). And today there’s a big headline about the other r-word, Redskins. Just yesterday, a reality television star who is a little person stated that the word midget is as offensive as the n-word. Of course, you can always tell that a word isn’t there yet when people say it out loud in comparison to “the n-word.” These PR campaigns to equate words with nigger are, to me, short-sighted and harmful. The idea is that they want fewer people to say these words, and I agree; let’s not go around calling people retards, please. But in order to get that result, they are also charging the words up with greater and greater power. They are creating vernacular monsters.

All of this is part of a cycle of name-changing and euphemizing that has always confused me a little bit. There was a time when black people in the United States were officially referred to as negroes, or colored people, or African-American, or black. There was a time when people were referred to as slow, and then retarded (the Latin word for slow; really creative, guys), and then mentally disabled or challenged. Midgets or dwarfs are now little people… or dwarfs, sometimes; I found mixed signals on that. Indigenous people to the United States were red skins and Indians and Native Americans and American Indians. In some of these cases there needs to be a distinction between official terms and slang terms. But in most of these cases the official terms became slang terms, and thus the “need” for a new official term was created. However, these changes in vocabulary serve in large part only to mask the attitudes that turned words into pejoratives in the first place.

I understand that language evolves, meanings change, and connotation especially can change. But it seems that when PR campaigns need to be launched making the most extreme verbal comparison available in order to affect that change, that maybe we’re missing the point a little. Maybe we need to look a little deeper at the practice. Yes, it’s easy to view me from my perch of privilege and write off this opinion, but to me–and this is what confuses and bothers me the most–people are being told how they must feel about words in order to retain status as decent and compassionate human beings. It’s one thing to have the feelings of an oppressed community explained to you and to feel empathy. It’s quite another when a small group within that community claim to speak for the entire community and tell both the outside population and members of their own community how to feel about various words and labels.

My basic understanding of how these labels come to change is that usually, a very small group of people within a minority community advocate to those of power within a majority community to tell the overall population what they now must call a smaller group of people. The rank and file of the minority community being re-branded rarely has much of a say–and generally don’t care, according to polling. However, one year you’re African American… the next year, you’re black again. It must be somewhat of a weird phenomena to experience from within; to be told that your label or your identity is now changed. It has been changed for you.

How many people within a community need to find something offensive in order to change that community’s label and identity? Is their sense of what is or isn’t offensive the new standard? Are you a bad or lesser human being if you find the labeling game to be a mostly fruitless endeavor?  I’m not certain about any of this. But I think that whether or not we find something offensive can be an individual choice, and that can be ok. And I think that charging words with all the power of the word nigger is a disservice to language and to society. And I think that you don’t have to re-brand a community to feel genuine empathy for them and to work to improve their lives.

This is the first in a two-part post on offensive language. Each can be read independently of each other, but Part One can be found here.

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