Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Offended by the word? Maybe we should talk.

By Tom Grant
PhD student, Center for ETHICS*

In a class last week, I heard some of the student-athletes calling each other “nigga.” I was deeply offended —not because they directed their comments at me; they hadn’t. I’m an old white man. The word has never been used as a club to beat me. No, I was offended because I put myself on the line many times to stop people from using such language.

As a journalist in a previous life, I remember standing beneath a bridge near Boise, working on a story about a bunch of beer-drinking skinheads. One of the skinheads, who later went to prison for terrorist acts, used the n-word to describe African Americans. Within his Identity Christian belief system, people of other races were inhuman. He used the term as though he were discussing an animal. I told him I was offended and I didn’t want him to use that language around me. In retrospect, that was probably a risky maneuver for someone surrounded by drunken skinheads. But oddly enough, the young man apologized and quit using the word.

When I lived in the South, I would almost routinely hear people use derogatory terms about African Americans. I remember telling a neighbor that language was unacceptable. I never heard him say it again. I doubt he changed his language patterns in other circumstances. But language is powerful. When one uses the language of hate, and others acquiesce to that language, it signals a quiet agreement. It says, “We are all racists here.” Stopping the agreement requires action. I’ve taken that action. It was the only thing to do.

After the incident in class, I asked an African American friend what he thought of the use of the word “nigga” by young blacks. My friend is an activist. He fights to try to improve the lives of people in the impoverished Southern city where he lives. He is extremely troubled by those who would adopt the language of oppression and turn it upon themselves. Of course, my friend believes in responsibility — that everyone, regardless of race, has a duty to act to improve their own future. Seeking improvement requires working together. My friend believes people hold themselves down by adopting oppressive language, the language of division, and using it on themselves.

There is a strong argument that offensive language can be liberated from its previous meaning. Gay culture has done that, I think successfully, with “queer.” African American legal scholar Randall Kennedy writes in the book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” that use of the word “nigga” by blacks exhibits a “bracing independence.” He believes they are changing the meaning of the word. Some in sport even believe the word conveys concepts of toughness and determination.

But most still hear the word, particularly when used by a white man, as a powerful insult. As Gary Younge wrote in an article in The Guardian, when blacks use the word “nigga” for each other they give tacit approval for use of the word by others. That’s why, in mixed company, Younge told an acquaintance never to call him that again. “If it was left unchallenged, I would have to listen to racist people using racist language and justifying it with the pretext that a black man had said it first.”

As coaches or educators, we could draw a line and say, “Don’t use that word.” And if we never hear the word, we have no need to confront it. But when the word comes up, as it does with regularity in music and conversation, it may offer a teaching opportunity. We are supposed to teach, and not just win games or deliver high scores on standardized tests.

This is a word with the potential to harm. It’s a linguistic elbow that may bend to serve some but has often been thrown to harm others. We can only know the difference by learning how others react to the term. I don’t condemn those young men who used on it on each other. But they probably didn’t understand that it hurt me.

Here’s what Dr. Sharon Kay Stoll has to say:

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