The N-Word – Neutralising the Power to Harm With Racial Epithets

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Freedom of speech – Should offensive and inflammatory words be banned by society to avoid harming the vulnerable? Image by Stefan XP

Should white people be banned from using the N-word, with its distressing historical connotations? And why do black rappers use an inflammatory term so freely in their lyrics?

In his book, The Blank Slate, Steven Pinker examines the ways in which language conveys both literal meanings and also a speaker’s attitude. “Racial epithets, which are laced with contempt, are justifiably off-limits among responsible people, because using them conveys the tacit message that contempt for the people referred to by the epithet is acceptable.”

Linguistic Determinism

Pinker describes the theory of linguistic determinism as “a dubious theory.” For example, the replacement of the word Negro by the word black. In the 1960s, the word Negro was replaced by the word black because the parallel between the words black and white was meant to underscore the equality of the races.”

Yet, the celebration of the word “black” seems to imply more than this. In 1970, Nina Simone’s song (lyrics by Weldon Irvine) “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was produced on record and became a civil rights anthem, subsequently recorded and reinforced by such icons as Aretha Franklin. The slogan “Black is Beautiful” then began to appear all over the media. It became, slowly and gradually, more than okay to be black, and to rejoice in the beauty of black.

The Euphemism Treadmill

Some non-black people continued to use euphemisms like “coloured person” or “person of colour,” as though there was something shameful about using the more direct “black.” Pinker says, “Linguists are familiar with the phenomenon, which may be called the “Euphemism Treadmill.” People invent new words for emotionally charged referents but soon the euphemism becomes tainted by association, and a new word must be found, which soon acquires its own connotations and so on.”

Black Rappers and the N-Word

So, why does the rap community revel in using the N-word? Simply put, most rappers are part of the group originally targeted by this vile word, with its horrific history. In reclaiming it, they are owning it, diffusing its impact and its power to damage. It’s helpful, maybe, to use, as an analogy; the avant garde appropriation of the term “Queer Theory” for gay studies. In Literary Theory, Jonathan Culler says, “It takes its own name and throws back at society the most common insult that homosexuals encounter, the epithet “Queer.” The gamble is that flaunting the name can change its meaning and make it a badge of honour rather than an insult.” The gay anti-Aids group ACT-UP, for example, has the slogan, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

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