Monday, April 9, 2007

The Danger of Dash Words


On February 28, 2007, the "N-Word" was banned by the New York City Council. That's right, the "N-Word," not "nigger" or "nigga," but a simple letter of the alphabet followed by a dash. The municipal officials who worked on the resolution with Councilman Leroy Comrie at the helm did not feel that it was necessary to include the word itself in the paperwork. Comrie himself, in an interview with NPR, stated that he didn't feel the need to put the word "nigger" in the resolution because "There's no one that does not understand what we're saying. And anyone that doesn't understand what we're saying, we quickly orient them to what we're trying to say."

Though a movement to ban the word "nigger," had its underground roots for some time, it received considerably more attention from both the media and politicians during the Michael Richards incident. Though countless articles, videos, blogs, and newscasts documented Mr. Richards' racial epithet-riddled breakdown at the Laugh Factory (which seems to be quite the hotbed for the word in question these days), very little was said about Richards' reference to lynching, one of the oldest American acts of terrorism, or the fact that the audience continued to laugh through the description of violence towards blacks, only to be silenced when he referred to the men as "niggers." Another glaring absence in coverage of the incident was Richards' references to white supremacy and the consequences to which blacks are subjected when challenging it. Even Jesse Jackson himself, who served as a "liaison" between Richards and the black community, failed to note some of the other aspects of Richards' tirade or that Richards had previously donned blackface for a skit in the 1980s, and focused instead on the use of the word "nigger."

Had it not been for the Michael Richards incident, I wonder if a so-called "N-Word Ban" would have even been a topic of discussion for legislators. But now that a racist white man compelled an entire group of city officials to make a resolution about a word, politicians and PC-watch dogs have something to celebrate. At the end of the day, however, the mere banning of a word, and not even the actual word itself, does absolutely nothing but distract the public from the greater problems that plague our society with regard to race.

For example, there are certainly other words that are powerful symbols of hatred. Why wasn't "bitch" or "ho" banned? These words affect the black community as well, especially now that they have morphed into synonyms for "black woman" as a result of the proliferation of some of the darker sides of urban culture in music and the media. What about words like "faggot," which author Terry McMillan uses freely to refer to her ex-husband, stating that it's her "only weapon" to use against the man who ruined her marriage, and which Isaiah Washington of Grey's Anatomy used in reference to a co-star? Will "chink" and "spic" be added to the list? Aren't Asian-Americans and Latinos considered communities of color as well? How about "ghetto," a vocabulary catch-all for anything bad, poorly assembled, or tacky? With regard to the aforementioned words, the black community is frighteningly silent. "Nigger" seems to be the only thing to solicit a response, so much so that people are afraid to say it.

Personally, I wish that the movement for what I call "dash words" would disappear. By euphemizing derogatory words in the English language, we merely soften the blow of their original hateful meaning. I liken the political correction of hate speech by the uses of dashes to the transformation of racism from public to private. What is more dangerous is not so much for someone to tell me they hate me, but instead to think it deep down inside until the hatred is strong enough to lead to discrimination. At least if something is said, I can confront it. I can challenge my oppressor's thought patterns by proving that I am more than what they may think of me. But if people are so afraid to confront the hatred inside of themselves, that is exactly where it will stay—inside. Discomfort is a part of the healing process. Nothing is easy about confronting racism, so why do we allow racist words to hide behind cute monikers? People should not be made to feel uncomfortable when using a word, particularly if the mentioning of the word is to discredit its very use. Don't actions speak louder than words?

With all this focus on "nigger," we have been taught to more or less ignore social manifestations of the word. The word "nigger" has much less of an actual impact on the community when used than the modern blackface we create and allow to be broadcast on our television screens as so-called representations of "black culture." It has less of an impact than the replication of that same culture by white college students at blackface parties. It has less of an impact than the debasement of black women, the rejection of black beauty, and the trivialization of our history in schools. It has less of an impact than a high crime rate, child abuse, drug sales, and gang activity. Why haven't we requested a ban on all of this? Bill Cosby made an attempt, but was criticized for being too harsh on the black community. Will it take another white man to point out these problems for us before we work together to eradicate them for good?

The legitimacy of the use of the word "nigga" within the black community as opposed to "nigger" has long been debated, and many people find themselves in one of three larger categories of opinion: a) the word "nigger" is racist, but "nigga" is a term of endearment as well as a synonym for "man" or "friend," and should be restricted to use only within the black community, b) no one should use either word, even if one identifies as black and/or part of the black community, and c) anyone can use it. For most people who consider themselves in Category A, which seems to be a significant percentage of the U.S. population, the ban serves absolutely no purpose. The mere admonishment from the New York City Council bears little weight in that is does not call for any form of punishment, unlike the Brazoria, Texas ban that calls for a $500 fine for those who use the word. Yet even the Texas ban has its problems, one being that there is no fine if the word is used as a term of endearment.

For more about the movement to abolish the "N-Word," check out this site: http://www.abolishthenword.com/

-Wendi Muse

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