Regarding the N-word’s origin, use, etc.
Dear Readers and Behemoth,
First of all, Albatross would like to thank Behemoth for responding to his work. It is a privilege to have a reader willing to respond. He would also like to thank readers for discussing it. It is an honor to be on everyone’s minds. (The pronouns “he” and “his” are used because they are the default pronouns of the English language, not because they are allusions to the Albatross’s sex.)
The outburst of criticism against Albatross’s column was anticipated, but poor Behemoth has misunderstood Albatross’ argument, and his own argument leaves a great deal of room for objection.
Behemoth begins by mischaracterizing Albatross’s argument as a rant. An argument is not a rant. Mounting an attack is not a rant so long as it is logically done. Albatross does not rant. He does not write wildly. He writes in a carefully reasoned, meticulously thought-out way.
In his slyly crafted opinion, Behemoth wants you to believe that certain words, such as the “n-word,” have a place in public life and in polite society. He argues that it is a normal linguistic phenomenon, not to be condemned. The central claim that he uses to drive his argument is that the “n-word” has been a fixture of black American English since Africans were first brought to these shores.
It is still a slur. And according to Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor and author of The Strange History of a Troublesome Word (2002), “its new usage [with the ‘a’] was popularized by gangsta rap in the 1990s.” Without further research, it is not possible to determine when this word became part of African-American culture. That is not germane.
Every group has words that they use amongst themselves. If a group tacitly decides that they want a word to reign absolute as a term of endearment, that is no one else’s business so long as the word does not enter the public domain.
It is all very well for people to use certain words, speak a certain way, use certain language, tell jokes, say the word “n-word” – in private. Behemoth believes that blacks have taken the “n-word” and given it value. The word has been repurposed. It may very well be endearing to adopt the word with a friend, like a secret handshake. It may be a convention in the black community to call one another that word. Every culture has its own system of etiquette. That the relevant community decides what words to use among themselves Albatross has acknowledged.
That is not the point. Albatross said in the March 3 column that who uses the word does not matter.
The word is not to be used in school. A school is polite society. In school, we all must put on our public behavior. To that end, we do not use certain words and speak a certain way. It is about decency, manners, and respect.
The “n-word” is not socially acceptable. It is not in good taste. One does not use the “n-word” during a job interview. One does not use it on a date. One does not use it in banks, churches, hotel lobbies. The word is not used on the evening news. It is not used in medical offices and hospitals, corporate offices, wherever people speak politely and behave with refinement, the word is not used. It is hard to imagine participating in a rich, philosophical discussion with this word bandied about. It is hard to imagine hosting a dinner party, serving drinks on a silver tray, and using that word. It adds the wrong flavor to a conversation. It is like farting during dinner. It is just not done.
The “n-word” is not the peak of sophistication, and sophisticated people do not use this word in public. Barack Obama did not use it on the campaign trail. Superintendent Highsmith, when he was principal of the high school, did not greet students with it. It is not used during Board of Education meetings. Faculty members who are black do not use it.
Yet the “n-word” has insinuated itself into everyday language at Hamden High School, where it flourishes. Some students have a symbiotic relationship with the word, using it in every sentence. In fact, the “n-word” gets linked with other words, making for some awfully vulgar phrases. Albatross frequently hears these phrases: “b****-ass ‘n-word,”p***y-ass ‘n-word'” and “d***head ‘n-word,” all of which sound most aggressive.
Although Behemoth insists Albatross is misinformed, those greetings appear fairly intimidating. They do not appear to exude bonhomie. The people being addressed do not seem to be objects of affection. It is jarring to hear these phrases; the ear never quite adjusts to them. In any event, it is tiresome for fastidious speakers of the English language to listen to this rubbish ALL DAY LONG.
It is the essence of self-deception to believe that you can use this word and not identify with it. When someone uses a word, it suggests that there is a truth to it. When you say a word, you not only say it, but you think and feel it as well. The “n-word,” no matter how it ends, is internalized racism, a humiliating thing to think about oneself. Someone who uses the word, and there are many black students in the school who do not, lays its weight on those who do not and find it offensive. That people believe that they can say the word in a friendly way miss the point. Using the word further entrenches a prejudice.
Parents do not call their children words rooted in slurs because they do not want the children to internalize those sorts of words. They know that words shape attitudes. Parents often call their children “champ” if the child is a boy, or “princess” if the child is a girl, not because the children are champions or princesses, but because the parents want the children to feel special, royal even.
They do not want to put obstacles in front of them. I can imagine nothing, not one thing, that could cause more hurt to a black child than his mom saying, “I love you, my “n-word.”
When someone uses other objectionable words, it is clear and obvious, and the student is reprimanded; yet we kid ourselves into thinking that we can change the pronunciation on this one, single word and that makes it okay. Whether ending in “a” or “er,” the “n-word” is associated with racism. Lopping off the “er,”and adding the “a” is cosmetic. Behemoth makes the point that some Americans in the South pronounce the word water “watuh;” however, whether said with an “er” or an “uh,” it is still the same word. Changing the spelling of a word does not shift its meaning.
Sometimes the “n-word” is said so quickly that clear pronunciation is sacrificed. When enunciation is not impeccable; one cannot tell if the “a” or “er” is used.
It is ambitious to take any slur and make it attractive. It doesn’t quite come off. Because it is rooted in a slur, the “n-word” is not an attractive word. It is blighted because of its origin. It is simply not aesthetically pleasing. Someone looking for a term of endearment or camaraderie might find a more charming word. Behemoth will argue that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. That is the devil’s argument. He uses it to tempt you to believe that you have the power to believe rightly in whatever you want. Do not be manipulated. The “n-word” is vulgar.
Behemoth attempts to interwine use of the “n-word” with language acquisition. He says that there is no such thing as bad English, just low intelligibility. That argument fails. Low intelligibility is bad. The point of learning a language is to be understood. Learning how to speak properly is essential. If one’s accent is too thick or grammar is faulty, one will not be understood. People will not want to talk to someone they cannot understand.
Hopefully, Behemoth will see the conspicuous truths of which Albatross writes. Unfortunately, we will probably never reach a concensus on this word. Eventually, someone will have to make the call.
In any event, it is fair, dear Behemoth, to say that the word has flaws, and it is clear more training is needed. There is so much to learn. This word will make for some merry workshops, a year’s worth, worth $100,000 at least. Call in the experts, linguists, historians, philosophers, and theologians, to give their professional interpretation of the word. Invite students to share their views with faculty, just as students from the Gender Equity Club lectured teachers on how to use pronouns.
What role should this word play in school? If the word is so harmless as Behemoth suggests, should it be integrated in class discussions and presentations? Should Mrs. Willis use it during morning announcements when she does them? If the word is in the public domain shouldn’t everyone be able to use it without fear?
The word is dulled if everyone uses it everywhere. If we all use it, it means absolutely nothing to the average observer. Perhaps the issue is irresolvable, but a coherent policy and practice is necessary. Superintendent Highsmith said at the March 9 faculty meeting that he wants to talk about race. The” n-word” is all around us at Hamden High School, but many people are reluctant to talk publicly about it; thus, there can be no better way to begin than with the use of this word.