Why the N-Word Matters?

Michael Richards has been in the news for a while now, and for good reasons. The n-word and the way he used it stirred up a shitstorm and brought up a lot of buried feelings on both sides. The situation reminded us that, in 2006, racism is alive and kicking.

Someone said, but it's just a word. Why do people get so pissed off by a word. Shouldn't we just ignore the word or try to desensitize it so that it's meaningless?

On a personal level, I agree that "you can only get hurt if you allow them." So many times I have heard racial slurs and epithets thrown at me, and my friends would be amazed by how calm and unaffected I seemed to be. They would say, "Aren't you mad? Don't you want to beat up that guy who just called you a stupid chink?"

To me, there is a time and place. Telling an ignorant fool that he shouldn't use that word, or getting myself all worked up doesn't solve anything, and I have long ago refused to be hurt by them. Otherwise, I wouldn't survive in a new world and I was determined to succeed. That was my resolution a long time ago and I still stick by it. Sticks and stones may break my bones.

It doesn't mean I don't see the damage a word like that can impart, especially on something young, or a new immigrant who needs to be accepted in this society. It's easier said than done with "you can only get hurt if you let them." For most people, these words are nasty, and they carry centuries of nastiness with them, and they still carry this nastiness in modern societies, where they are living RIGHT NOW. You can't just brush it away and say "these words don't matter." On an individual level, I do encourage all of us to empower ourselves, to educate ourselves, and to help eradicate these ugly words, not only from our vocabulary, but also from our consciousness.

But as writers, we have a responsibility with our words. We're not writers if we don't believe in the intrinsic power of words. People communicate through words, and it's silly to disregard the power of words by saying "it only has power if you give them." Otherwise, why do we still revere the following phrases if they were not by themselves powerful?

"Ask not what our country can do for us. Ask what we can do for our country."

"I have a dream..."

"A small step for man, a giant leap for mankind."


These particular words, and the particular ways they were spoken/written, are powerful because they speak the truth about humanity. The reverse could be said about words such as the n-word. They are not just words. They carry far more than the five or six letters. They encapsulate whole generations of ugliness, and to cast them away and say "oh, they are only powerful if you allow them to be" is to trivialize our history and our growth, to say "it didn't matter," and to pardon those who used them to maim and hurt.

Comments

H. Lewis Smith said…
BOOK CRITICAL OF AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO USE THE N-WORD

Los Angeles, CA., - Author H. Lewis Smith has written a thought provoking, culturally divided book that will not only spark heated conversation, but can also bring about real change. The N-word is often used in the African American community amongst each other and is generally not a problem when spoken by another African American. However, once the word is used by a Caucasian person, it brings on other effects. The question is "who can use the word and why?" Smith believes it is a word that should be BURIED!!!!

The book is written in a manner that all can understand. The points are well-taken and the wording is easy to follow. There are quotes from great people in our history including Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, James Baldwin and many, many others. Smith has mixed history with honesty, love with life, education with effects. This is a great book for educators, parents, managers, professionals, newsmen, and anyone else wanting an in-depth look at the N-word, the effects and the solutions. A MUST READ!!!!

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Patrick said…
I've written on this topic myself. My belief is this: it is impossible to remove the meaning from that word.

If it could be done, as long as blacks have been using the word for that purpose, it wouldn't have been so hurtful when Richard went on his rant.

You're quite correct when you point out that we're not really writers if we can't recognize the power of words; on the other hand, unfortunately, I've seen many writers, particularly when dealing with each other, pay no attention to the words they use and how they use them.

Even the most benign of words, when used in a spiteful manner, can still do their damage, no matter how much we condition ourselves to defend against hurt feelings.

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