Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troubling Word

February 20, 2002 // 12:00amFebruary 19, 2002 // 11:00pm

Randall Kenned decided to write his book after typing the word "nigger" into an Internet search engine and finding thousands of references. He was intrigued by "our society's continued grappling with nigger and the cultural dynamics that surround it." He investigated further, and devoted the first section of the volume to the word's etymology and a recounting of its history as an insult. "We should not be confined by our history," he stated; "we need not to be mastered by any word, and are capable of changing its meaning." As an example of that kind of change, he referred to the way some African-Americans say "nigger" as a term of affection, endearment, and solidarity. Throwing a racial or ethnic slur back in the face of the oppressor as both African- American and other oppressed groups have done, he believes, transforms it.

The second portion of the volume deals with "nigger" in court: attempts of the legal system to grapple with the word, both when a tort case is brought by someone who has been assaulted with the word and as a mitigating circumstance in criminal proceedings resulting from someone's response to another person's use of the word.

The book's final chapters discuss current responses to its use. Kennedy cited the experience of a Central Michigan University basketball coach as illustrative. After asking for and receiving their permission to use the word, the coach exhorted his losing team of eleven African-Americans and three whites to play more like "niggers," by which he meant "players who were doing their jobs well." The university first suspended him and mandated his participation in a highly controlled sensitivity training session for the team; ultimately, it fired him. Kennedy considered the firing excessive and, in the book, examines what he would consider a more measured approach to hate speech.

Marilyn McKenzie responded with what she called "The Problematic Turn in a Word's Career." She disagreed that words are entirely chameleon-like, stating that in the larger context of U.S. culture and history, "nigger" is unacceptable. It is too loaded, politically and culturally, to be turned into something neutral. Its use by someone like Kennedy merely helps to reify the word and makes him complicit in its perpetuation – not unlike some African-American and white rap artists. It is the culture rather than the word that needs transformation. Looking at it etymologically ignores the way it has been and is used within culture, and will merely encourage people to continue employing it in a racist context.

For those reasons, McKenzie agreed with the firing of the coach. The players' "permission" to use the word was irrelevant, as the situation reflected the coach's power and the coach's request for "permission" constituted an abuse of power relations. She viewed employment of "nigger" within the African-American community to reflect a lack of knowledge about its historical use, and emphasized the need for greater education for all Americans about racism and its verbal manifestations.

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