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


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These gay people refuse to be defined by social prejudice. Image by Gareth Cameron

Intentions May Not Matter

In Literary Theory, Jonathan Culler also explains that the force of an insult is not necessarily from the speaker’s intention or authority. “It is the repetition, the citation of a formula which is linked to norms sustaining a history of oppression, that gives a special force and viciousness to otherwise banal insults such as “n….r” or “kike.”

The website TV Tropes explains, with reference to the N-word: “Considered one of the most vile words in the English language, it has become a term of fellowship in American hip-hop culture.” In other words, what the site describes as “N-word privileges” can only be granted to those targeted by the slur, or, sometimes, by others who have been so victimised that they are able to identify with the affected group and have, therefore, earned their privileges.

Adam Croom, in his essay “Slurs”, agrees: “As insiders, their appropriate use of the slur is a way for them to mock or make a joke of outsiders that employ the term.”  Croom also points out that impoliteness can promote intimacy within an in-group, and tells Decoded Science, “As several scholars have now argued and recent studies have shown, slurs in contemporary use have been adopted for wider and more varied applications, so a speaker’s use of a slur in some particular context nowadays is not always as salient of an indicator as it once was that the speaker using it possesses derogatory intent or will engage in subsequent derogatory actions.”

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