Saturday, 7 May 2016

Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On

At the end of this post I might lose or win a few readers and fellow bloggers. But honesty has always been my policy when writing online. And if that ruffles a few feathers, so be it. As long as I write with a modicum of decency and respect, I would like to believe that people will react in a similar fashion. After all, I try not to be black and white (pun not intended, and you will see why I mention this later on) about the political or social issues I write about on my blog.

There has been a controversial subject that has been burning inside me for many years. It reached a climax about a decade ago when a former colleague of mine greeted me one day in the office with the words: “Yo, whassup, my Cuban n…a!” I refuse to spell out the entire word out of consideration for those readers who will take umbrage at what I believe to be an offensive term. But you will probably guess what the word is.

My colleague was surprised at my swift and admonishing reaction. I was concise, precise and to the point. Under no circumstances was he to use the “N” when talking to me again.

That was about ten years ago. I had similar feelings recently when I saw and heard Larry Wilmore refer to outgoing president Barack Obama as “my n…a” (notice the ending. The “a” is meant to soften the effect as opposed to the traditional “er”).
I mentioned honesty in my opening paragraph and if I am being honest I have to admit that I had no idea who Larry Wilmore was until I watched the clip of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Then, again, US viewers might not know who Graham Norton is. Still, ignorance of Larry Wilmore's media relevance  does not lessen the impact of his words.

There was an immediate backlash against the comedian. Some of it was justified, some was not. Responses varied from well –informed ones to ill-thought and poorly-articulated ones. Sadly, lost in the midst of this debate was the primary reason why Mr Wilmore’s colloquial phrase caused such a stink: the history, the (mis)use and the (re)appropriation of the “N” word. 


What did you call the president again?

Based on my completely unreliable and unscientific research of no more than a dozen acquaintances, friends and work colleagues, I can say that many black Britons feel uncomfortable with the use of “N” word. Not all, though, young people do not think much of it and do pepper their conversations liberally with the term. You could say that there is a generational divide but Larry Wilmore is no spring chicken. What made him use a word that his ancestors heard, possibly preceded by the “f” word, before they were lynched?

That has always been factor number one in my decision to accept this term: history. You don’t need to be born in the States to know that there is a long history of murders, beatings and punishment inflicted on black people. That the “N” word came to signify inferiority simply rubbed salt in the open wound. That a whole political, economic and social system was erected on the back of this racist notion of black people’s inferiority reaffirms my conviction that use of the “N” word is never justified. Even if it is uttered by a black comedian to a black president.

And yet…

English is not my mother tongue. I may have studied it, mastered it and taught it at some point, but it is not the lexicon I grew up with. Occasionally this makes me feel like an usurper. So, when English-speaking black people talk about (re)appropriating an erstwhile offensive term, I know I must sit up and listen to them. Even if I disagree with them, it is still their language. All I can ask for is not to be the recipient of such hurtful term.

And hurtful it is. The “N” word is not just a product of language but also a phenomenon. A misleading phenomenon, in my opinion. Why? Because it presents black people, especially men, as rap-loving, basketball-playing, slow-hung-jeans-underwear-showing, swagger-boasting “bros”. In the process this word strips the black person of their identity. In fact, it does not even let them carve out their own identity, whatever this might be. It divides black men into the same two camps white colonisers divided our ancestors all those centuries ago: house Negroes and field slaves. The former were the docile, butt-kissing servants, the latter were the fiery, law-breaking firebrands. This division was wrong then and it is still wrong now. Having street cred is not and should never be seen as a substitute for good education and high aspirations. It is not an either/or world, but a both/and one. You can be streetwise and a university graduate.

Larry Wilmore referring to Obama as my “n…a” was incorrect. The setting, the occasion, the audience, everything conspired against him. This makes me think that really and truly there is never a good moment to utter this highly emotionally-charged, controversial word, whether it be in hip-hop or slam poetry, whether it be a white rapper saying it or Common. I do apologise to my Anglophone readers and fellow bloggers for treading on your toes. After all, it is your language. However, I love English as much as I love my mother tongue, Spanish. I am aware that there is a process of reclaiming terms that have hitherto been considered demeaning. I hope the “N” word is never claimed back. There is no “back” to claim. The murders, beatings and punishment will always be there as reminders of the true meaning of the word. You do not need a Cuban to tell you that.



© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Wednesday 11th May at 6pm (GMT)

28 comments:

  1. I've been reading you for a while now (on recommendation of a friend) and don't usually comment.Today, I feel I need to.To simply say "thank you" for an intelligent explanation, from one who has been stung by this nasty labelling, of the hurt that is often caused,sometimes unintentionally.
    From my position, "nigger lover" also hurts.

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  2. Wonderfully courageous and beautifully written. I've always wondered why black people wanted to re-appropriate that word, a word that without exception obviously bears so much pain and disrespect. It is neither a chic nor cool nomenclature. And why, I wonder also, is it men who predominately use it? (on both sides) I can grasp why other races choose to use it, lack of insight and just plain idiotic stupidity. If anyone says that in my presence I deal with them directly and fearlessly, (the older I get the more confident I am in stating my views without becoming emotionally threatening - but it's hard work) the word is denigrating to not only the intended but also to the speaker.

    I also am appalled when people, sooo many people, refer to our admirable president as Barack Obama. The correct title is either Mr. President, President Obama or President Barack Obama. Show some respect people!

    Lovely portrait.

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  3. Thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

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  4. This is very interesting and I appreciate your perspective on all of this.

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  5. I appreciate the way you express yourself and thanks for sharing your honest thoughts!

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  6. I appreciate the way you express yourself and thanks for sharing your honest thoughts!

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  7. No arguments. None. Thank you.
    And it made me think of a cartoon (and I cannot remember whose). A black person is on the street begging. His sign says 'Please help. Black, blind - and not musical.'

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  8. Cubano,I agree, the word has no place in any person's language. As a writer, I have always been particularly sensitive to the power of words and they do hold a lot of power whether people realize it or not. That is the reasoning behind many African Americans using the term,it's an attempt to reclaim their power over the word. Using it casually and with friends does lesson the impact some but it doesn't wipe away the ugly history. Unfortunately, many people don't know the history or don't choose to. I don't agree with its use in any situation but I feel like the arguments and efforts should be aimed at the conditions that surround the word instead of the word itself.

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  9. I agree with you. I don't think it was appropriate even in the context that it was used. And people who have re-appropriated words should never assume that it is OK to inflict them on an acquaintance.

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  10. Thank you.

    'Re-claiming' that word... no matter which letters one chooses to end it with... makes every bit as much sense as 're-claiming' b**ch does for women.

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  11. Ser sincero y abierto es lo importante y tu con tus explicaciones y opiniones siempre haces ver lo que la mayoría no nos paramos en ello.
    Un abrazo.

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  12. Yeah, using a word that white people created to be offensive, even if black to black or whatever, is rather moronic. I've played games with people online who say it every second word. But that's okay because they are black, or claim to be, I just leave the room.

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  13. We might disagree sharply at times on political issues, CiL, and mildly (by my definition) on religious matters, but on this particular point I am in total/complete/absolute agreement with you. In a historical context, there probably is no other word in any language which has the equivalent connotations and, therefore, no other word which a thinking person should go to greater lengths to avoid ever uttering under any circumstances.

    As for comedian Larry Wilmore (never heard of him, either), I think any "entertainer" who uses the word should be heckled and jeered off stage. There is nothing comedic or "edgy" about it and, maybe, a harsh rebuff of those who do use it would hasten the disappearance of the word from all but historical/academic reference.
    A very appropriate and well-construed post, CiL ….

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  14. Hey you gain a new follower. A Puerto Rican in New York jaja. I'm like you, I was really taken back when Larry used the word N***a at the White House. I was hugely disappointed with him. And let not forget that the White House used to have slaves. Slaves, people. So it was highly inappropriate and I don't respect people who justified that word because N***a is not a term of endearment. The reason why the "N" word ends with an -A- is because many slaves couldn't pronounce the -ER- just like Massa instead of Master. N***a is N***er regardless how you feel about it.

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  15. Good words, thanks for your thoughtful honesty.

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  16. The N-word is offensive. Full stop. Unless used by a black person to another one and both are fully aware of why they are using it (trying to re-appropriate the word). That word has so many offensive connotations, too much history of oppression and racism... All black people I know say it is offensive - in which case it is. I definitely agree that it shouldn't be used in political situations. Well written.

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  17. English is my mother tongue, and I'm a white woman - and I find it offensive. It's a word that carries a terrible history of which white people should be truly ashamed.

    And it's also a matter of respect - perjorative words such as this, or those that reduce people with disabilities to nothing more than a problem, devalue us all.

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  18. Whatever happened to respect? I am so pleased you 'spoke' up about the N word and the people who use it. I am ashamed of fellow Englishmen, of whatever colour and creed, and wish I could apologise on their behalf. They should always bear the scars of shame. Fortunately for me, I don't know who they are.

    Many years ago I worked in the CID of my local police force, and I clearly remember the day when we were all summoned to the lecture room. That was when we were told/ordered to remove the N word from our vocabulary and that there would be heavy penalties if anyone was heard to use it. So what went wrong ... how and why is it now used so freely?

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  19. this makes me tired! :( I can´t understand why people don´t think some other people are not people.
    I have 6 nationalities in my family. Some of them are black people.

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  20. Wonderful post!
    Have a nice week-end!
    Gil Zetbase
    http://gilzetbase.com/

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  21. I wish Larry Wilmore had refrained from using the N-word, but I'm more concerned right now about Republicans introducing voter ID laws to keep people of color from voting. I'm worried that a billionaire megalomanic who calls undocumented Mexicans rapists and who wants to build a wall on the US-Mexico border is within striking distance of the White House. This same person, by the way, helped perpetrate the racist myth that President Obama was born in Kenya and thus not eligible to hold the office. For the record, the N-word is abomination. I think is an excellent post and I'm glad that you brought this topic up and got us all thinking. Keep up the great work. :)

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  22. There are very few words in the English language that bother me. This particular word does. The issue I see, is trying to defuse the power that the word has over everyone. I think that's why when I hear it used, I really don't cringe over it. I chose to control the word, not have the word control me. Which is why I like the Mel Brooks movie "Blazing Saddles", because I think he made a sincere attempt at trying to desensitize/strip the power that the word has (Samuel Jackson tries to do this as well from time to time), and which I also find it extremely hilarious whenever network television here in the States tries to show the movie, because that's the one word that is consistently edited out of the movie. For fear of offending people.

    Father Nature's Corner

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  23. It's one of the words that should be consigned to history. I can see why some black rap artists want to reclaim the word and fine if they use it only to refer to themselves, but in general, it shouldn't be part of anyone's vocabulary these days.

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  24. I have to say...I have never used that word, and I never will. In spite of being white, I have always found the "N" word utterly offensive. I agree with you wholeheartedly...it is demeaning and degrading...and yes, it should be consigned to history - in fact, it would have been much better had it never been used in the first place.
    Makes me feel ashamed of my ancestry...and I can only apologise most sincerely for their ignorance...

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  25. Agree with you. That word should no longer be used.

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  26. I watched Larry Wilmore on the Daily Show for years and loved his segment, which focused on race relations. He was usually funny and not offensive so I was surprised to hear about him using the n-word with the president. Even in a comic setting it seemed disrespectful to Obama and to the African Americans who have fought hard to eliminate that slur. I also don't like the use of slut or bitch for women, "reclaiming" the offensive word. I'm not going to hold this against Larry Wilmore because everyone makes mistakes, and I believe his heart is in the right place. Even those of us who aren't bilingual find English a challenging language, full of nuance! I do appreciate your consideration on this topic. Well said.

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  27. A well done post, as always. As a woman, I object to the C-word and as a disabled individual, appreciate that the word"gimp" when used by those without a disability is a pejorative. That said, the other word you mention never passes my lips because it reveals everything that is evil and inhumane about racism and inequality. Hats off to you for this post.

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  28. Hey Cubano, I also don't like the word and wouldn't ever use it. I have t seen wilmore's segment. I think there is a very odd dichotomy in the states at least where it seems to be acceptable for some people to use among each other and rthat creates some confusion. Language is such a complex thing-- as it is multi-layered. Thanks for your thoughtful and candid post. K.

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