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.
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.