Even though the rumours were quickly squelched by his representatives, I couldn’t stop thinking about how we live in a world that’s a) gone completely PC crazy and wants to censor everything that can even remotely offend people, or b) has created this bizarre double standard where the victimized group gets to appropriate a hateful word in a not-always-successful attempt to defuse it.
Words matter. But words are ultimately defined by the content in which they’re used, the intent of the speaker, and the perception of the audience. “N*gger” is not a derogatory term on its own. It’s simply a derivative of the Latin word for the colour black. Yet I bet many of you are squirming just pronouncing it out loud right now. Why? Because it’s a loaded word.
“It’s the context that makes all the difference. Historically, white people used it to put a black person in his place as someone inferior to a white person, an inferiority upheld by the law, that sustained a culture where two white men could smash the head of a 14-year-old African-American before shooting him in the head, tying a barbwire around his neck and dumping his body in a river…for whistling at a 21-year- old white girl,” writes Gerald Montgomery in www.AtlanticRock.com.
That’s the kind of unbearable weight this word carries... It’s a racial slur because the word was repeatedly used in a derogatory sense to denigrate and psychologically subjugate.
How, then, does our knowledge of this word’s power to inflict pain, manage to co-exist with a hip hop world that is, by all accounts, unable to produce a single rap lyric without copious and repeated usage of the word? 50 Cent’s debut album, Get Rich or Die Trying, used the word “n*gga” a total of 131 times! Not only is it racially insensitive, it’s also painfully redundant.
Why are we ok with Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton condemning radio shock jock, Don Imus, when he called the Rutgers women's university basketball team "nappy headed hoes” (not that he didn't deserve everyone's scorn...), but we aren’t questioning why they seem to be ok with rappers who have absolutely no qualms about calling black women the very same names? Does it really come down to who gets to say the words?
How, then, does our knowledge of this word’s power to inflict pain, manage to co-exist with a hip hop world that is, by all accounts, unable to produce a single rap lyric without copious and repeated usage of the word? -
I get the impulse to appropriate something hateful. After all, public flaunting of a derogatory word by the victimized group itself is nothing new. Gays have taken on the word "queer," and lesbians have taken on the word "dyke" as their own. As a result, both words have pretty much lost their pejorative sting.
Professor Todd Boyd wrote in his book, “The Death of the Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop”, “I love the word “n*gga.” It is my favourite word in the English language because no other word incites more controversy today. To me, hip hop has redefined the word… […] “The more you say it, the more you desensitize it.”
Perhaps, but I’m not convinced. Normalizing a word through sheer ubiquity does not always defuse it or render it harmless. A word can lose its shock value without necessarily being of any value.
“Just because your enemy is wrong, it doesn't make you right,” argues Trisha Rose, in her book, “The Hip Hop Wars”.
Mark Twain, who was notoriously picky about the words he chose, wrote that "the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter."
I wonder what he would have thought of a world that felt it necessary to edit his literary classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, by replacing the word “n*gger” with “slave” in an effort to render it less offending to readers, yet seems perfectly ok with a music industry that openly celebrates these very same derogatory terms.