Thursday, August 26, 2010

Some Thoughts On the 'N' Epithet

When I was growing up in the sixties, the phraseology used among hippies was prevalent, even in the Deep South where I lived. In particular, the use of the word man, as in "what time is it, man?" was ubiquitous. But growing up white meant that I didn't know the origin of the term until many years later. I learned that it first came to be used by beatniks in the fifties, who had adopted it from black jazz musicians (along with marijuana), who had been using it since the days of Jim Crow in the South. Black men called one another man because whites were calling them boy. It was their way of stating, if only to one another, that they were men.

While the vast majority of white folks in America have been thoroughly briefed about avoiding the use of the word nigger (to which I will refer in future as the "n" epithet), some of them obviously have not. Laura Schlesinger is only the latest casualty, but only because she was finally held accountable for saying something that was not only stupid but offensive.

She wanted to know why, she claimed, black people can get away with using the epithet but white people cannot. The use of the 'n' epithet among black people has an origin and function that is similar to that of the term man. By making the word commonplace, by bandying it about as Richard Pryor did and as nearly every black comic and rap artist has done ever since, blacks have taken the word away from whites, who would only use it to offend, and neutralize its power to offend, making it harmless or even affectionate.

Some white observers, puzzled that a slur should be used by the very people it was supposed to offend, wonder why whites still can't say it. Chris Rock, who waded into the controversy himself with his comedy album, Bring the Pain in 1996, tried to explain it to an NPR interviewer by likening it to calling someone else's kid stupid. If a parent called his kid stupid, the kid would understand what he meant, or didn't mean. If someone else called the kid stupid, in whatever sense, it would be wrong.

Dr. Schlesinger remarked that some people are "sensitive" about the 'n' epithet, implying that she is not. I suspect that the loss of revenue from her radio show will increase her sensitivity to the subject.

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