In Defense of a Loaded Word


Ta-Nehisi Coates in the NYT:

It might be true that you refer to your spouse as Baby. But were I to take this as license to do the same, you would most likely protest. Right names depend on right relationships, a fact so basic to human speech that without it, human language might well collapse. But as with so much of what we take as human, we seem to be in need of an African-American exception.

Three weeks ago the Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who is white, was reported to have addressed his fellow Dolphin as a “half-nigger.” About a week later, after being ejected from a game, the Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes, who is black, tweeted that he was “done standing up for these niggas” after being ejected for defending his teammate. This came after the Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, who is white, angrily called a black security guard a “nigger” in July.

What followed was a fairly regular ritual debate over who gets to say “nigger” and who does not. On his popular show “Pardon the Interruption,” Tony Kornheiser called on the commissioners of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball to ban their players from publicly using the word. The ESPN host Skip Bayless went further, calling “nigger” “the most despicable word in the English language — verbal evil” and wishing that it could “die the death it deserves.”

Mr. Bayless and Mr. Kornheiser are white, but many African-Americans have reached the same conclusion. On Thursday, the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, a group promoting diversity in coaching and in the front offices of the N.F.L., called on players to stop using “the worst and most derogatory word ever spoken in our country” in the locker rooms. In 2007 the N.A.A.C.P. organized a “funeral” in Detroit for the word “nigger.” “Good riddance. Die, n-word,” said Kwame Kilpatrick, then the mayor. “We don’t want to see you around here no more.”

But “nigger” endures — in our most popular music, in our most provocative films and on the lips of more black people (like me) than would like to admit it. Black critics, not unjustly, note the specific trauma that accompanies the word. For some the mere mention of “nigger“ conjures up memories of lynchings and bombings. But there’s more here — a deep fear of what our use of the word “nigger” communicates to white people.

More here.