A brief thought on that taboo racial slur and a more racist term

There exists a word, an anagram of ‘Ginger’, that is still taboo. I even hesitated to use it in the title of this post. Although (oh my, does this count as a trigger warning?) I am going to use that word in the rest of this post, as soon as I’m reasonably confident I have written enough words here for it to fill the brief summary the WordPress feed offers readers.

The point of this post is to discuss the idea that historically the word was used to dehumanise black people and so when white people use the word, it is that history they allude to. Therefore, so the argument goes, when a white person says ‘Nigger’ (or ‘nigga’, sorry, that’s the same thing) that is an absolute taboo. However, in modern parlance among black people, the word ‘Nigger’ is actually equalising, a comradery or endorsement of another black person. That makes it an entirely different word; the same sound, but entirely different.

The reason some black people keep the word ‘Nigger’ to show endorsement of each other is, in part, to take the dehumanising power the word had away. It has to be said that some black people think this is inappropriate and feel the word ‘Nigger’ is entirely dehumanising and taboo regardless of the speaker. Whereas my view is slightly different.

#whitemansplaining

I entirely support moves take power away from words that intend to dehumanise people. But, I think continuing to allow the word ‘Nigger’ to be a taboo for white people is exactly the problem. By having the word ‘Nigger’ as a taboo for white people, its meaning can never be allowed to change. Only words in use can be allowed to change.

I understand I have limited experience with racism so my view on this may be discounted. But, hear me out. After all, white people who support racial equality outnumber bitter or ill-intending racists. I’m aware some people think all people are racists, but that involves a lowering of the bar of racism to include ‘racism of low expectations’ or ‘racism of passive ignorance’, both of which, although damaging, are far lower-level things than aggressive or active racism.

I am reminded of Louis CK’s use of the word ‘Nigger’ to describe a white barista. “That nigger made the shit out of a coffee.” It was an unabashed, unqualified endorsement of the young white man to be called a nigger. That use of the word that is prevalent among black culture is seeping into the lexicon in broader terms. It is shifting to be an endorsement and not an attack. But, if it continues to be a taboo for white people to say it, that shift can never complete; ‘Nigger’ will always be dehumanising if white people can’t also have access to the word. Most white people are not bitter racists who intend the word hatefully. Not even the old ones. I heard the story from a 90 year old lady that she had just seen “the most beautiful negress”. I don’t know what a negress is, but my spellchecker isn’t picking it up. I honestly think it was a 90 year-old’s attempt at being progressive. There wasn’t any disdain or contempt in her voice. Perhaps a little of the ‘racism of low expectations’, but no bitterness or aggression. She was, without judgement, observing a black woman and noting that she is beautiful. Sure, we can pine after the next step, where the 90-year-old doesn’t even notice the beautiful woman is black. But I think you’d be hard pushed to call the 90-year-old racist, without really minimising the definition of ‘racist’.

 

There is a word out there I think is more racist than the word ‘nigger’ and by a long way: Malteser. I don’t know how prevalent this word is, but I heard a friend of mine get called a malteser for being a high achieving black student. The suggestion was that, despite being black, she is ‘white on the inside’. It is the declaration that academic success is a white trait. Almost as if she is betraying her black culture to be successful. This is not me being outraged on her behalf, she was upset. And this is a word I simply never knew before. (That’s not 100% true, I’ve heard it used to describe brunette girls who acts stupid; they’re blonde on the inside. And, of course, I’ve used the actual chocolate to send myself into a pre-diabetic coma.)

So I am pondering to myself as I write this whether “malteser” could even have its racist interpretation taken away from it. And I think the answer is “no”. If black people take it and try to own it, it will still have the connotation of separation; that there is some trait or achievement that is uniquely ‘white’. If white people try to own it, it will still suggest there are some things black people can’t do or have. And yet it is powerless word that most people have never heard of in race terms. It is unlike ‘nigger’ in that separation of race is built into the word. But I still don’t think taboo is the answer; taboo gives the word power. I think the answer is ridicule (or, at least, it would be if the word ever gained any real power).

And for that, it has to be allowed to be said.

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15 thoughts on “A brief thought on that taboo racial slur and a more racist term”

  1. Hi, I like your thoughts and I get your thinking and understand what you’re saying. I don’t identify with it all though.

    Regarding ‘that word’, as a white man, I don’t think I should use it and I feel deeply uncomfortable even thinking about using it. I can’t imagine a situation where I could use it and not feel that I might have offended someone. My feeling is that there is too much tied up in it’s use by oppressive white people that it’ll be a long time before that association can be reduced. I am cool with black people taking ownership of the word and taking away it’s negative connotations. From a cultural perspective, I very much feel that whites need to leave it be.

    As for the malteser. That’s the flip side, rather than putting black people down, it’s elevating white people to an undeserved position of betterment. That might not be how everyone sees it, but that’s how it plays in my mind. It’s a different form of insult. I think it manages to belittle and insult white and black in equal measure. I am familiar with the insult but thankfully I do not hear it outside of discussion on race or in casual entertainment. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it in real life use. Long may that be the case.

    I’m of the opinion that anything that serves to create a barrier between people of differing skin colour is a bad thing and both these words, in the context described, do that.

    1. I agree with the sentiments expressed here. I hadn’t heard of the word malteser before. Now I know. I don’t think it is a good addition to my vocabulary though

    2. I can see how ‘Malteser’ necessarily creates a divide, because it makes explicit claims about who can achieve what.
      However, in context, I think the word ‘Nigger’ can clearly be used as an endorsement. Black people do this. A white guy I know does this with his black friends. (I get that is a highly personal example, subject to selection bias.)
      That said, I don’t use the word ‘Nigger’. In part, that’s because I’m more likely to have a black person who doesn’t get the context and how I mean it over hear me, than actually be the person intended to hear it.

      If what I describe in this post were ever to happen, the transitional period would be a slow and dangerous one.

      1. In your white guy example, I think that’s cool and is probably the kind of thing you’re talking about. The demographic of where I live means it’s highly doubtful I will ever have that luxury.

        In the reverse of Malteser, I grew up in Zambia and didn’t move to the UK until I left home and started working, so culturally I found limeyland very difficult at first. Some of the friends I made in those early years described me as the “blackest white guy they’d ever met”. I took no offense at the term and took it as an acknowledgement that I was proud of the upbringing I had and welcomed any and all association with the country of my youth. If there where a word like Malteser but with colours reversed, I would have enjoyed the label.

        Hmmm, why do I see Malteser as an insult and yet would have proudly accepted the opposite if given it? I don’t know the answer to that. Maybe I should book in to see a therapist! 🙂

  2. A “negress” is a female “negro.” It was once considered a polite form of speech. Nobody at the time, and this includes me in my youth, thought it was strange to identify people by the color of their skins. But I have freckles, but no one called me “spotty” “speckled” or “dots alot,” etc. All terms of description of an individual that rely in skin color should become anathema, until we can rid our thinking of the poisonous idea of “race.”

    On Wed, Aug 31, 2016 at 4:53 AM, Allallt in discussion wrote:

    > Allallt posted: “There exists a word, an anagram of ‘Ginger’, that is > still taboo. I even hesitated to use it in the title of this post. Although > (oh my, does this count as a trigger warning?) I am going to use that word > in the rest of this post, as soon as I’m reasonably” >

    1. In countries like Argentina, a kid is identified by his physical features right out of the crib.

      A dark kid is called “negro” (blacky) for his whole life.

      A skinny kid is called “flaco” (skinny).

      A kid with a big nose is called “narigone,” (big nose).

      A fat kid is called “gordo” (fatty).

      A blonde kid is called “rubio” (blondie).

      The Argentines are famous for their sobre nombres (nick names).

      I, an American was called, El Pulpo – the octopus.

      So who are the white Europeans to judge the lower class barbarians?

  3. Before I read a section of the Bible to the congregation, the priest made sure I pronounced the word, Niger, as Niger and not ginger.

    I gave him a funny look and he said that it was his duty to make sure.

  4. Isn’t “ginger” an insulting term for someone with red hair?

    I’m of the opposite opinion. Terms of derision should be exorcised from the language, not sanitized. But then, that’s one of my pet peeves, terms having their meanings changed.

    Here’s the thing. If you change the meaning of a word, or in this case, the intention, you guarantee confusion (in this case contention). Because not everyone will “get the memo”. If a person uses a term and means one thing, and the person hearing it can’t tell whether they are using the “old version” or “version 2.0”, or worse, refuses to accept the existence of one of the versions, well, the results can spiral out of control.

    1. There was no memo when ‘cool’ stopped being an exclusive reference to temperature, or when ‘wicked’ became a good thing, or when ‘naughty’ was sanitised into meaning adorably mischievous (instead of sinister and depraved).
      Ginger is also a spice and a colour.
      I think exorcising words is impossible. And efforts to exorcise words empower those words.

      For example, racist views are a completely taboo opinion to hold. That didn’t stop people from being racist. It just meant they were really quite about it. Now, given the slightest justification (#Brexit), the racism came boiling over; we had a huge spike in racist incidents in the UK following the successful Brexit vote.

      Although I don’t have the numbers, I can imagine something similar has happened in America following the rise of Trump. It’s not that Trump is creating racism, it’s that racism was forced underground and now it’s being given an opportunity to surface.

      I think something analogous happens with taboo words. Forcing ‘Nigger’ into taboo status doesn’t stop the word from being in use nor from existing. It simply means the word is used in dank little social spaces among actual racists, and will resurface at every opportunity.

      All I’m suggesting is that white people are able to adopt exactly what black people mean when they say nigger, and by sheer ecology the racist version of ‘Nigger’ will simply die. (It’s Gause’ Exclusionary Principle.)

      1. I know, it pisses me off. I expect words to mean what they meant when I learned them 100 years ago and it makes communication more of a challenge when I think I am saying one thing and someone else gets a different meaning, or I hear one thing but what was said was different. Usually I manage given context, but not always.

        Yes, exorcism could work – for some words, if we had the fortitude. Probably not with a word which has an existing, acceptable definition. But if you have a derogatory term which has no historical good qualities, you could for all practical purposes eliminate it from use. You would just have to make it have suitably unpleasant ramifications for anyone who uses the word in any manner. Eventually, the last person stupid enough to use it in public would be suitably chastised and it would effectively cease to exist. Yeah, it might still be used in dank cellars between like-minded buffoons, but who cares? In the basement, they are hurting only themselves, and the odds are pretty good that the more they do it in secret, the more likely some will slip and use it in public and be stomped on for it.

        What sort of “racist” incidents? An incident between two people or two groups of differing races is not necessarily racist. It is racist if and only if the REASON for the incident is based on the difference in race. If a white man whacks a Syrian man over the head with a shovel, “everyone” will claim it is racist. And it is possible it is. But it is at least as possible that it is the Syrian man’s actions which caused the incident.

        Oddly enough, a lot of the “racism” here in the US is not really racist. It is often either a political tactic or out and out stupidity based on the commonality of the cries of “racism” whenever someone is annoyed with someone else. For a political instance, anyone who criticizes something that President Obama does must be “racist”, because the President is (partially) black. Makes no difference what the something is and whether it is actually good or bad; the disagreement MUST be only because the person is a racist. As for the stupidity, recently a person left a charge receipt with the written statement “We don’t tip illegals”. And it was universally hailed as a racist remark. Sorry, no race was stated or implied. Just a very reasonable policy of not rewarding people for breaking the law. A policy which I share, and further, I won’t even patronize businesses which knowingly hire illegals. Where the racism came in was the person assumed the waitress was illegal based on some combination of appearance, name and accent. And that was wrong. Morally and factually. She was not illegal; she was not even an immigrant. Turns out she is the natural born citizen of multi-racial citizens.

        Disagree with someone? Are you not able to refute them on the facts, or are just too lazy or stupid to bother trying? Call them a racist and “win” the argument. You don’t have to prove they are racist; the accusation alone turns them into a racist in the eyes of the world.

        So I don’t see any indication that Trump is racist, and I don’t see any evidence that he is in any way “leading” actual racists. What I see is a guy with the political savvy of a golf ball, who has lived in his own kingdom so long that he is not used to putting his brain in drive before opening his mouth. And I see an awful lot of elites who fear their apple cart is tipping over and resort to the tool of the stupid and lazy in an attempt to chase him away.

      2. Is it possible for whities like me to be able to use it in the same context as blacks do? When I imagine a group of black folks using it between them, I imagine it’s usage is a recognition that they all have black skin. Biology has excluded me from that conversation, so I don’t think it’s possible for me to adopt exactly what black people mean when they say it.

  5. We will always have a problem with labels but we must remember under each label is a human being who can never be assessed or properly identified with a label. Does the word black mean more than skin colour? Have black people different human characteristics from white people? Does American mean more than some one who lives in that continent? Words are tricky things but we cannot exist without them.

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