A week or two ago I read this report about US radio host Laura Schlessinger using the dreaded N-word live on air. It caused a bit of a furore over in the US.
I find the response to things like this fascinating. Some people believe that some words are for some people and some are for others, ie. it’s OK for a black person to say ‘nigger’ but not OK for a white person. What about people (like me) who are of mixed race? Evenings and weekends?
The (black) caller was talking about the racism of her (white) husband’s friends, and mentioned that they used the N-word. Dr Laura’s not-very-helpful response was: “Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger. I don’t get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it’s a horrible thing. But when black people say it, it’s affectionate. It’s very confusing.”
To top it off, Schlessinger went on to say: “If you’re going to be hypersensitive you shouldn’t have married outside of your race”.
The caller, not surprisingly, took offence, as did quite a few more of Schlessinger’s millions of listeners (and, no doubt, a whole bunch of people who heard about it later). But the bizarre thing was that when Schlessinger apologised, it wasn’t for having been a mean, insensitive racist bully to a woman who called her for help, but because (in her words) “I articulated the N-word all the way out, more than one time. And that was wrong.”
When she says she “articulated the N-word all the way out”, the phrase she’s fumbling for is: “I said ‘nigger’.” Yes, the word is tied in with a terrible history of oppression and hate. Yes, I understand how much it can upset people and I don’t go around saying it myself. But by treating it like it has magical power, and refusing even to say it when we’re quoting somebody else saying it, aren’t we just adding to its impact?
Let’s have a look at what Schlessinger actually said. Her words were: “Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger.” That’s her perception. It may be wrong. It may have been a misjudged comment. It may be irrelevant. But it doesn’t call for an apology. Her later comment about marrying outside of your race is, to me, the bit that requires an apology or explanation.
The meaning of a word comes from who says the word, who they say it to, who else is there at the time, where it’s said, when it’s said, how it’s said, why it’s said, what was said before, the tone of voice it’s said in… Instead of obsessing about the particular words people say, we should think a little harder about what people mean.