Sticks and stones

About a month ago, the city council over in New York City unanimously ratified a city-wide ban on the usage of the word “nigger.”

About a month ago, the city council over in New York City unanimously ratified a city-wide ban on the usage of the word “nigger.” The ban is said to be aimed largely at young African Americans who use the word as a term of endearment.

City Councilman Leroy Comrie, the ban’s sponsor, has argued that “people are using it out of context,” and “are also denigrating themselves by using the word and disrespecting their history.” The ban is symbolic. It carries no penalty and will not be enforced.

As one would imagine, the council’s decision has opened a gargantuan set of worms, and everybody (yours truly included) seems to have an opinion.

New York City’s ban follows similar measures passed in February by the New York state assembly and state senate. Its proponents hope these decisions will inspire other government bodies to do the same. “This could be the beginning of a movement,” Councilman Albert Vann said.

Supporters have also been bringing their cause over to The Recording Academy, requesting that it not nominate musicians for Grammy awards who use the word “nigger” in their lyrics, in addition to requesting TV network Black Entertainment Television (BET) to cease using the word in their shows.

There are a couple of towering flaws within the city council’s decision, and the first one that needs addressing is its pure arrogance and presumption. According to BBC News, Comrie says that the word “was derived solely out of hate and anger, and that its meaning cannot be changed.”

To attempt to dictate to someone of a different social group what it means to use a word is not only condescending, it’s also impossible. Any linguist can tell you that language is not a static entity, nor are the implications of language ever as limited and clear-cut as the ban’s proponents might like us to believe.

No one word, especially one as loaded as “nigger,” holds a singular, end-all meaning. The appropriateness of a word to describe a specific group of people is all in the addressee, the addresser, and the tone and context in which the word is said, and these factors are in a constant state of change over time. This is how language has always worked, and “nigger” is no exception.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer for Time Magazine, noted, “It is amazing to hear people in one breath assert that nigger-users are ignorant of history, and then in another breath say that no other group uses someone else’s slurs to describe itself. And yet country singer Toby Keith’s latest album is called White Trash With Money.”

He goes on to say, “Sure, I would not take kindly to whites calling me ‘nigger’… but I also wouldn’t assume that I’d be able to walk into a honky-tonk bar and address the patrons as white trash. Words are contextual. A man on the street can call his wife ‘baby,’ but that doesn’t mean I should be able to as well.”

Thankfully, supporters of the ban seem to be finding their efforts stymied almost everywhere but the paper their bill is printed on. A Recording Academy spokesman said he was extremely doubtful that the Academy would support such a measure. Representatives of BET have not responded to the request.

Interviews with young adults on the streets of New York have suggested that those who use the word “nigger” consider the notion of ceasing to use it laughable. Chris Rock, a black comedian who has been noted for his past usage of the word, mocked in an interview, “What, is there a fine? Am I going to get a ticket? Do judges say, ‘Ten years, nigger!’?”

It seems hard to swallow the notion that attempting to eradicate a word with a racist past is equivalent to fighting racism, because an action like the city council’s ban keeps the word’s racist connotation alive and well. If a word like “nigger” is slowly losing its power to hurt, then attempting to ban it surely helps to give some of that power back.

It seems silly to us when we read books like Harry Potter, where the arch-evil wizard Voldemort is so feared and hated that the mention of his very name is considered strictly taboo. But the fear (and thus, the power) of that character builds greatly on the stigma surrounding his name, and the way the New York City Council wishes to treat “nigger” accomplishes the same thing.

By attempting to lock the word out of the English language where no one can say or hear it again, we assign more and more “evil-ness” to it, and paradoxically give more power to those who would perpetuate racism by using it. Trying to ban racial slurs effectively hands racists a weapon.

A utopian, racism-free society would not have a handful of scary unspoken epithets that are never uttered; a utopian, racism-free society wouldn’t consider any words epithets period.

Finally, it seems that a symbolic ban to “protect” African Americans from themselves is not only arrogant, but also wastes a lot of time when there are many other troubling issues that deserve more attention (Perhaps the city council could dedicate some time to reducing crime and poverty among African Americans?) Sabrina Vidal, 19, a New Yorker, said, “Some people are really offended… but I think there is much more out there to worry about.”