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The “N” Word

Posted by melagee on January 28, 2010

I had this blog mostly written out, and then I realized that I was emphasizing a point that I didn’t want to make.

My point is this:  Words have power, and on a personal level I both respect and support that power.  Also, I am resistant to change.

I think we can pretty well all agree that there are certain words in the english language that you just can’t say, especially if you are part of culturally normative or historically oppressive group.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Straight White Males.  I’m not going to list these words, since I’m sure you already know what they are, but I would bet good odds that you’ve used at least one of those taboo words at least once in your life, in a way that you (should) feel guilty about today.  I have.

I am a white girl, and when I was young  my best friend was a black girl.  One day she called me a nasty name and I called her one back.  The nastiest name you could call a young black girl.  To this day when I think of that moment I feel guilt and shame and regret.  So much so that several years later when I’m retelling the story, I cannot bring myself to repeat, verbatim, the content of the argument.  Instead I have to leave it up to you to guess at what was said.

I started this post the first time around making the argument that there are certain situations in which it is okay to say things that you normally now you’re not supposed to say.  Like the word I used on my best friend when I was a kid.  I started to argue that there were situations, like in retelling a story, when it was okay to use the word, because in that situation it didn’t carry with it any of the usual connotations that come with a white person using language that was designed to oppress.  In that situation I was just repeating a story.  I insisted that in situations like that, there was no harm done is using the word, and in fact it was silly not to!

But I think I was wrong.  Words are so incredibly powerful, and some words hold so much weight and I love that!  Because some words convey ideas that are so weighed down with history and meaning that they absolutely should be heavy and they should cause an emotional response so that every time we hear those words or say those words or think those words, we are reminded of what those words mean and where they came from.  Some words command our attention, even if only in the threat of being used.

Of course the rules are different when you’re part of the oppressed group and you’re claiming the Power Word for your own.  As a woman I will happily refer to myself as a chick, a broad, a dame, or a skirt.  I don’t do it that often, but it’s okay for me to do it because I understand what those words mean and my use of them is changing their meaning, at least within this context.  But then, if you’re reading this right now, the odds are good that you’re my friend and you already know all about reclaiming power by co-opting words.

I know that everything, including the definitions of words in the english language, changes over time, but in some cases (many cases) I am not ready for that change to happen, and the truth is that I don’t think the rest of us are either.

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One Response to “The “N” Word”

  1. “Boston Public” did an excellent episode once about The N Word. The episode actually uses it a number of times and we’re asked to question the power we give the word, and who has the right to use it. It’s an excellent episode. If you’re interested, I can hook you up 😉

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