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December 06, 2006

The N Game

I’m trying to figure out why the so-called N-word has become the one word you cannot say anywhere, under any circumstances.

Now, crawl off that high horse. I’m not defending Michael Richards’ rant, but if you’d seen it you certainly believe that this was a man who completely and indefensively lost it in public. He appeared to be dangerous, and not in the Michael O’Donoghue / Saturday Night Live sense of the word. Any audience member could have legitimately thought he or she was in physical danger.

So let me ask you this: would people be as upset about Richards’ performance had he merely used a different word?

And let me ask you another: is the word “nigger” worse than (wait for it) chink, spic, cunt, kike, jigaboo, or motherfucker?

What about context? How many books do we have to burn? Do we start with Dick Gregory’s ground-breaking autobiography? I’m assuming Mark Twain is already gone. Richard Pryor – you’re history. And take that routine you did with Chevy Chase with you. It ain’t funny no more.

Richards used the word six times and self-appointed spokespeople demanded he pay a fine of six million dollars. Oddly, Marlon Wayans said nigger roughly twice as many times on the very same stage a week later and was only fined $320.00. People demanded a boycott of the latest Seinfeld DVD release, as if Richards shared his Klan robes with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

Michael Richards should be condemned for his obvious racism as well as for his sickening lack of control (even by my standards, which are pretty low). If, as he claims, he’s not racist then he needs some help. He needs help for his self-control issues no matter what.

And that, folks, is that. Leave free speech alone. At the very least, language serves as a red flag identifying the enemy.

With urban police departments continuing to gun down unarmed black people willy-nilly, with our nation’s public schools a living joke and our slow-lynching health care system the most evil form of segregation seen in a century, let’s not worry about this comparatively trivial symptom and instead deal with the root causes once and for all.

Posted by Mike Gold at December 6, 2006 11:13 AM

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Mr. Gold,

In answer to you're original musing about when the "N-word" became so unusable, I believe that it traces back to the criminal trial of O.J. Simpson. That, at least, was where I first noticed news anchorpersons using the term "N-word" when referring to revelations about the dectective whose name I believe was Thurman. New reports mentioned that the defense painted him as a racist who used the "N-word" on multiple occasions. It was then that I realized the TV News was unwilling us the "N-Word" even when specifically quoting someone else. At the time I was under the impression that the racial issues of the trial had rendered the word entirely out of bounds instead of being "merely" a rude racial slur. I will admit that it is possible that this tranformation occurred before then and that the new reports merely brought it to my attention, as I neither used such slurs nor did I associate with people who used it in my presence. However, that was my first observation of it becoming totally unacceptable to use the "N-word" in anything approaching polite circumstances, even if you were accurately quoting someone else. I believe that the word has moved up the "rudeness" scale to be (at least) on a par with the other slurs you list.

Posted by: David Hunt at December 6, 2006 12:29 PM

Mike, I don't really disagree with you, but this doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. I agree that the $6 million "fine" is not only unnecessarily punitive, but also a possibly illegal kickback at worst. It certainly is a grandstanding ploy. Sports commentators who have uttered racist remarks on the air were fired, plain and simple. (Of course, the sexist camera operators picking out the jiggliest cheerleaders and spectators for public consumption get a pass...) Clearly, it's not about freedom of speech, since so many people have been venting their spleen on people unlike them for about 20 years already without remorse or punishment. We need to put a lid on the hate language AND the hate actions. Communication has sunk to such a fevered low, it's hard to reach consensus. We need to have respect for each other to effect changes that stick.

Posted by: Marilyn Ferdinand at December 6, 2006 03:03 PM

Context is very important. Pryor rarely -- if ever -- used the word "nigger" as an epithet (and if he did, it was as a racist "character" he was playing). He took the power out of the word, which I know is a cliche, not just by saying the word a lot but by using it somewhat affectionately. Of course, even he wound up rejecting its use eventually.

The same goes for the Pryor/Chase sketch. When Chase says, "Nigger," and Pryor responds, "Dead honkey!" it's a great satirical moment that demonstrates the impact the word has.

Honestly, I think the confusion is that "nigger" is often used a certain way (either by comedians or in rap songs) but it's not like the power the word has as an epithet has really vanished. If a white guy gets angry and calls another black guy "nigger," there's going to be a problem -- even now. I really doubt Marlon Wayons, for example, flipped out and called a bunch a blacks "niggers" and -- worse than that -- recalled the glory days of lynchings.

Posted by: SER at December 7, 2006 10:56 AM

Context is the entire argument; Richards was a physical threat to his audience, Wayons was merely taking a political stand. Neither should be fined, but one should be fired. The whole build-up to Chase's use of the word nigger in that great SNL routine -- and the outcome of that bit -- are as important as Pryor's response.

The power of the word, of ANY of the words I noted, when used as an epithet is immense, but it's the empthet and not the word that's the problem. You can always substitute a euphemism for an "objectionable" word without changing the meaning whatsoever.

As for the glory days of lynchings, well, I chose my words carefully when I said "slow-lynching health care system." It's merely another type of euphemism; the result is the same.

Personally, I prefer to know where people stand. If you think I'm a kike, call me a kike to my face. If you think I'm a liberal, call me a liberal to my face. Of course one of 'em might get you punched out, which is rather sad at my age.

Posted by: Mike Gold at December 7, 2006 11:10 AM

Free speech is not the same as a free pass. You can say whatever you want, but so can other people -- including those who don't like what you say. Richard Pryor, being a genius and a professional stand-up, could take it. Richards, who is not a professional stand-up, could not.

Posted by: Martha Thomases at December 8, 2006 10:07 AM

One thing that needs to be brought into the conversation is that Pryor swore off using the word after his trip to Africa, as was related in his standup at the time. Using "that word" should be a personal choice, and people will be offended or not. However, if you ban a word, ANY word, you give it more power than it should have.

Posted by: Cory!! Strode at December 8, 2006 10:04 PM

eat shit and die faggots

Posted by: kill your self at January 18, 2007 09:48 AM

fucking nigger need to bre hung and shot...maybe eaten too with bbq sauce

Posted by: damn niggers at January 18, 2007 09:49 AM

I agree, it depends on context. But I still don't like the word, and never have.

The saddest thing to me is that so many good people have died for the black man to have self respect, and now they call themselves nigger as a term of endearment. Martin was murdered over it. Lenny died over it, among other things. Malcolm was killed over it, by his own people.

It's a word, hateful and nasty. And it has power only as long as we allow it.

About that trip to Africa. I have a friend in Memphis who's a colonel in the Army. Back in the mid-Nineties he was in Uganda for a training exercise with their army. His top kick was a big black guy from Chicago, and the Ugandans refused to speak to him. When Darwin asked them why, they said "He's scum. We sold his people as slaves long ago."

When the sergeant talked to Darwin later, he said "I'm not ever gonna badmouth Chicago or my people ever again. These folks here are poor in a way that I can't wrap my brain around, and they are the most racist motherfuckers I've ever seen. I ain't even gonna badmouth Whitey no more. The nastiest Georgia cracker is nicer than these niggers in Uganda."

When Darwin told me this, my jaw fell open. I was floored by this. Are we in America that enlightened? We can't be. Humans everywhere are racist as hell. It'll take a cultural revolution the likes of which hasn't happened in the history of this planet for racism to go away.

When the freed slaves who went back to Africa founded Liberia, the first thing they did was buy slaves.

I'm a quarter Cherokee, and when I hung out with the Native American Intertribal Association twenty years ago I found out real fast that Amerinds are racist. They hate whites, blacks, everybody. And each other. Every tribe hates the others.

Until we start acting like humans, and put our differences aside, nothing will change. So long as we fight, nation against nation, tribe against tribe, we will remain a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.

And a few racial slurs in a comedy club, flung by a man who lost his temper, will be the least of our problems.


Posted by: Miles Vorkosigan at January 23, 2007 08:17 AM

Let me say at the outset that I'm black/African American/negro/whatever's popular this week.

I wasn't offended by Richards' statement so much as curious as to what really prompted him saying it. I strongly doubt that a high-profile celebrity is going to simply spout a "racist" remark without an outside prompt.

I once had a telephone conversation with a black man who called me a "g--damn cracker" without being aware that I "wasn't." I have no doubt that some black heckler in the audience shouted the word "cracker" to Richards and he responded accordingly. Not defensible, but understandable.

When Dave Shappelle was interviewed on "60 Minutes," he actually said that he would be offended if a white person used the same word that he used on several occasions on his self-cancelled comedy show. If that's not hypocrisy, I don't know what is.

If anything, I'm more offended if a black person uses that word because it can be interpreted as a self-hating reference instead of a "word of affection" when there's anger in the voice of the person who says it. When a white person uses it nowadays, there are usually plenty of non-bigoted white people present to raise enough of a stink to avoid frivolous $6 million lawsuits being filed IMHO. Look at the media attention drawn on this occasion!

Posted by: David S. at March 2, 2007 03:43 PM

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