In recent times, there has been a staunchly contested debate about who should be allowed to use the term n*gg*r – or the colloquial variation “N*gg*,” in modern society. Described as arguably the most enduring and infamous racial slur in the history of the United States (Holt, 2018: 412), the use of the ‘N-word’ has proliferated beyond the Atlantic in recent decades, stimulated by the growing interconnectedness of cultural norms across, and between, national borders. However, this has led to an increasing amount of ambiguity and division among racially diverse communities about the use and the meaning of the ‘N-word.’ This is especially due to the emerging popularity of the word through the widening accessibility of music, film and other art forms, and the continual use of the word as a weapon of racial disdain by far-right activists and advocates.
Indeed, two meanings of the “N-word” have been formed; the historic, barbaric use of the word that attempts to dehumanise the existence of black people (and often other people of ‘colour’), and an alternative version that aims to restore black ‘brotherhood’ and reclaim a ‘sense of community’ among black people against the horrors of slavery and colonialism. However, not only do I completely detest its unquestionably racist undertones, but I also challenge the notion that the ‘N-word’ has somehow been ‘reinvented’ by the black community as a form of self-empowerment. Going further, I believe the ‘N-word’ has no place in today’s society – irrespective of the context or the colour of the voice it stems from. In agreement with Rob Nelson, whatever is done with the last syllable of the ‘N-word’, it should not be considered any less offensive or demeaning (1998, 117), and all people – including those of black descent, should refrain from using the word entirely.
The idea that the ‘N-word’ can be detached from its racist connotations, or that it should be reserved for the exclusive use of black people alone, is not only complete nonsense but it is also sets a dangerous precedent in terms of who, how, and when, it is appropriate to use the word. Arguments that have supported the use of the ‘N-word’ have included a defence of the “varying contextual determinants on the meaning of ‘n*gg*r,'” as proposed by K. Allen (2016), and the suggestion that black people have authority over the ‘N-word’ given that slaves largely derived from the ‘Nigeria’ area and its apparent derivation from the word ‘Negus,’ which translates into ‘royalty’ in Ethopian Semetic languages, as expressed in the KayTime TV footage here (15:20-16:30). However, what these arguements ignore is the deep historical and psychological impact of the use of the ‘N-word‘ – both on an individual and societal level, which continues to be reinforced everytime the word is used.
If we explore the actual origins of the ‘N-word,’ until the late 18th century there is little evidence to suggest that the word meant anything more than a descriptor for people of black origin; “n*gg*r” was literally synonymous with ‘Negro’ (Allan, 2016: 4). In fact, the ‘N-word’ appears to have entered English through the borrowing of negro ‘black,’ a word common in both Spanish and Portuguese slave traders that referenced the dark skin of Africans (Rahman, 2012: 142). Moreover, slaves were taken from across Central and Western Africa, and not simply from the ‘Nigeria’ area (incidentally created by the British three hundred years after the beginning of slavery), while it is extremely questionable that early slaves would have used the ‘N-word’ in a positive fashion given their limited grasp of the English language.
When slaves did adjust to their new environments and their status in society, n*gg*r was a convenient and logical label for the slaves to employ to refer to themselves. This was largely due to the frequency in which it was applied to them by dominant communities in the United States, and consequentially, the ‘N-word’ carried similar referential meanings for both white and black people before the late modern period – to literally mean ‘black’ (Rahman, 2012: 145). As such, not only is it unlikely that the use of the ‘N-word’ stems from a notion of royalty or higher status from a bygone African language, but it also shows that black people had no conceptualisation of the ‘N-word’ until they arrived on the shores of the Americas. Therefore, it makes no sense for black people to take back ‘ownership’ of a word that they simply played no part in formulating.
An even greater reason to remove the ‘N-word’ from our modern vocabulary is its more sinister usage since the abolition movement and the gradual freeing of slaves across the Americas. To borrow from J Rahman, as social, economic and political events unfolded, ‘n*gg*r’ moved from its relatively neutral usage among white Americans, to an overtly hostile and abusive word meant to intimidate Africans in America, and highlight their ascribed moral and intellectual inferiority (2012: 142). Between white Americans of all classes the invocation of n*gg*r was a social contract that united them along racial lines as they competed with black Americans in the Northern states (Pryor, 2016: 227). In fact, the ‘N-word’ has survived for decades as the most violent verbal attack against the humanity of black people, and has extensively been utilised as a racial derogative to reinforce the legacy of oppression. Notwithstanding its societal ramifications, several theorists have also explored the deep psychological effects of using the ‘N-word,’ including its role in inducing low self-esteem within black children, and the denial of self-worth among black and minority groups more generally (Holt, 2018: 419). In truth, there is arguably no greater insult to a black person than to be called the ‘N-word.’
And yet, here we are. We live in a world where black people openly use the ‘N-word’ in reference to each other, people of other races – and as I have often observed, animals and innate objects. A world where we have blurred the lines between who and when is appropriate to use the word, chipping away at its historical legacy and normalising its usage without any consideration for the individuals who have borne the brunt of the word and much more. Of course, I speak without experiencing the ancestral effects of slavery, and without fully understanding the contemporary struggles many African Americans face in their fight to exist in the United States, but the continual use of the word will not erase the scars of the word’s slavery-laden meaning or lessen the severity of its racism (Nelson, 1998: 117). It is time we abandoned the ‘N-word,’ and finally acknowledge and address the entrenched emotional attachment black people have towards the ruination of their culture and civilisation.
Allan, K., 2016, “Contextual determinants on the meaning of the N word”, SpringerPlus, vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 1-11
Holt, L. F., 2018, “Dropping the “N-Word”: Examining How a Victim-Centered Approach Could Curtail the Use of America’s Most Opprobrious Term”, Journal of Black Studies, vol. 49, no. 5, pp. 411-426
Nelson, R., 1998, The Word” Nigga” Is Only for Slaves and Sambos. The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, (21), p.117
Pryor, Elizabeth. S., 2016, “The Etymology of Nigger: Resistance, Language, and the Politics of Freedom in the Antebellum North”, Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 203-245
Rahman, J., 2012, “The N Word: Its History and Use in the African American Community”, Journal of English Linguistics, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 137-171