N-word Blues

Nigger is the only word like it in the entire global English language. Used in any part of the world, it brings up images and sentiments around oppression and otherization that are unique to the Black American experience. It has become a universal word that characterizes and summarizes racism in a way that no other slur does. Coolie, Kike, Spic, Dago…are vicious disgusting words, but they are not institutionalized the way “nigger” is; and this is not just within the borders of the United States, but it is part of the global consciousness. So much so that the liberal loving media has replaced it with the term I used to start this article… “N-word.”* The problem is that the “N-word” still means nigger, and frankly, it lets people off too easy. If you, as a liberal non-black person think it is difficult to read or say the word “nigger,” imagine what its like being the target of it? Think of this, we don’t say “S” word…we don’t say “K” word. There is a sick need somewhere in the global consciousness to maintain the meaning of the word nigger even if it is not used itself.

There has never been a movement to criminalize a word. Policing speech to that level goes directly against the Constitution of the United States. However, there is only one word, “nigger.” The use of this word, its place in the global consciousness and its place in language is like no other word. The word nigger has been a tool to justify and excuse institutionalized racism that has taken the form of a slow motion genocide.  There is a direct connection between this word and scores of lives lost. Those who would object to the criminalization of this word will immediately cry foul for their first amendment rights, but I would argue that the word nigger is not so much a word as it is a cultural pathology that is as damaging a pedophilia, rape and murder each of which carries a heavy legal penalty. To that end, I sincerely believe there should be a way to uniquely criminalize the word nigger in a way that reflects the unique way in which it perpetuates and undergirds institutional racism that is at the core of American culture.

As social media has evolved, so must our laws around communication. Hate groups use the word nigger as a weapon in their online tactics and they use it as a rallying cry. And despite some very gifted black artists and activists “reclaiming” the word nigger, I say to them, what is there to reclaim? As a black man, I never owned it in the first place and I don’t think the existence of the word nigger was ever justified. Let the racists have it.

Historically, the United States refuses to take ending racism seriously. Lynching was never criminalized. The voting rights act has been repealed, within my lifetime we lived under laws that forbade people of different races to marry. Time and again, US culture bends to the minds of bigots. This is crazy. What seems less crazy is taking away one more weapon from the arsenal of racism. But then the United States is weapon crazy. It should be no surprise that the “right” to the word nigger is guarded as closely as is the “right” to guns.

As long as there is a “nigger” there will always be a racist in SAE.

*I have used “n word” here for the sake of how social media works and to allow people to reblog this piece with less hesitation.

Please see this excellent resource: Jim Crow Museum: Nigger and Caricature

Point of View

20130720_071432My word for the day is ‘perspective.’

Yesterday, President Obama did something unprecedented.  He completely personalized an issue that he didn’t have to.  Until yesterday, He was treading the road of Washington D.C. professional, political navigator…insider.  But yesterday he made a surprise statement about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case.  For at least a portion of those 18 minutes, he was no longer the President of the United States, but the president of black men in America.  A risky stance when it’s open season on black men.  But this was an important step and a step that only he could take.  Black men have never had a president say “I am unapologetically one of you.”  Conservative pundits are critical of him for identifying, for reminding us that 35 years ago it could have been him who was shot by a local vigilante; for reminding us that he has had people lock car doors when he walks by, women clutch their purses when they see him…just as I and millions of black men have had happen to them as well.  But where were the criticisms when George W. Bush put in place tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (largely white men) or when he made any number of statements about ‘conservative’ values (abortion, gay rights, affirmative action) that only spoke to a specific demographic of white Christians again, largely men?  Yesterday, black men in America finally had their moment.  Deal with it.

Yesterday, there was also a wonderful program on KQED, Forum with Dave Iverson, Assessing Racial Equality and Justice in 2013 America.  His guests, Angela Glover Blackwell (PolicyLink), Eva Paterson (Equal Justice Society), and Peniel Joseph (Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Tufts University) brought about a rich conversation that highlighted both the passion and the data behind how we actually see race today in America.  The conversation between the panelists was extremely well balanced and full of great moments, including one where Angela Glover Blackwell said in response to a listener who said they were tired of the conversation about race, “I’m tired of having to come back to the same issues again, and again…but until I see progress, I’m not going to stop.”  You can listen to the conversation and view the comments here.

I’m using the word perspective today and pointing out these news items because I think it is crucial in this conversation, and as we start conversations about race that we maintain perspective.  That we realize that our personal perspective is always skewed in the direction of our personal experience.  If you have never been called a nigger in the street, you can’t understand what that feels like or what that does to your personal sense of safety.  That is the only word in the American English language that carries with it an immediate association with specifically white oppression, violence and privilege.  It is a word that no matter how much one may thing that blacks have ‘reclaimed’ it, will never be able to be anything other than a word of pure “otherization.”  It creates a barrier with its history.  In my comments on the KQED program, I reminded people who were complaining about the focus on “black/white” in the current conversation about race that our American perceptions of race are based almost entirely on the historical relationship between black and white.  You cannot have a conversation about oppression and bigotry against Asians or Latinos or Native Americans in America without talking about blacks.  Just look at the fact that the three groups I just referenced are identified by location or language; yet blacks are identified primarily by a color.  It is the total anonymizing and obliteration of a history and the complete packaging in the context of oppression that s contained in the word nigger and that is why this conversation must continue.  One can claim, Scoth-Irish ancestry, French, Chinese, Spanish, Mayan ancestry, but blacks in America can claim only a vast continent…Africa.  We can’t point to tribes or recognized ethnic groups within the African diaspora, it was erased when our humanity was erased.  When we simply became bodies that were part of the machine of America.

Although I believe that sexuality and gender oppression is the worst global issue, I believe that the lack of understanding between black and white is America’s worst issue by far.  But that is my perspective and the perspective of every other person who has lived with the fear and cultural restriction that goes with our history.  My perspective would, I’m sure be very different if I woke up every morning and never had to think about justifying my education or worrying about publicly expressing my solidarity with other black men for fear of being seen as a threat.  But I will never know that for sure.  All I can do is have compassion for your perspective and ask you to have compassion for mine.

Add your photos to my ‘un-mugged’ project on facebook or tumblr #adamdyersays