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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Taking the "N-Word" out of the Ghetto

The status of the "N-word" was recently placed in issue by Laura Schlessinger's repeated use of it in a radio broadcast and her subsequent resignation from the show in the wake of the ensuing controversy. Schlessinger did not use the word as an epithet. Indeed, technically, she did not "use" the word at all: In philosophical jargon, she "mentioned" the word, meaning that she referred to the term itself and the norms surrounding its use. (I "use" the term "Boston" when I say, "Boston is the capital of Massachusetts," while I "mention" the term "Boston" when I say, "Boston has six letters").

A word must have almost magical capacity to offend when its mere mention, as opposed to its use, can cause offense. (I exhibit my own awareness of the "N-word's" power by refusing to mention it in this post). Schlessinger mentioned the "N-word" for the purpose of contrasting the different norms surrounding its use by members of different racial groups, highlighting that Black men -- she particularly noted Black "comics" -- use the term routinely in public settings without causing offense. Schlessinger implied that those who were offended by whites' similar use (or, I guess, mention) of the term were being "hypersensitive." She was, one might argue, trying to destroy the magic of the term through repetition, much as the characters in Scorsese's "Good Fellas" turns the "f-word" into a mere form of punctuation.

There is an obvious response and a less-obvious question invited by Schlessinger's complaint and strategy. The obvious response (made by a Washington Post piece) is that a term derogatory of a group will plainly be less offensive when used by a member of that group: I can be self-deprecating, but not other-deprecating, without causing offense. There is nothing anomalous about banning a term's use by outsiders while licensing its use by insiders, on this account -- and no need, therefore, to declare war on the double-standard through a radio diatribe.

But there is a deeper question that this glib response overlooks: When a group embraces an insulting term as a defiant banner of solidarity, should we expect the term eventually either (a) to migrate into the mainstream of language, losing its insulting force or (b) die out? If so, why has the "n-word" not yet moved in either direction?

Consider some contrasting examples: "Chicano" and "queer" both began their lives as insults for newly arrived Mexican immigrants or gay men and lesbians, respectively. They both have since migrated into the mainstream, with "Queer Studies" and "Chicano Culture" (for instance) being utterly mundane phrases devoid of insult. By contrast, Edmund Burke's use of the phrase "the swinish multitude" to refer to plebeians led various advocates of democracy to embrace the term "swine" or its cognates as a defiant badge of honor. (For the definitive history of the controversy over Burke's use of the term, see chapter 12 of Don Herzog's Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders). But the fad faded: No one nowadays uses the term "swine" to refer to, say, trade unionists or working-class folks. In short, one might hypothesize that contemptuous terms must evolve into a mainstream noun (as did "Chicano" and "queer") or die as an unacceptable insult (as did "swinish multitude"), at least so long as the contempt that the terms represent has been banished from respectable society.

But the "N-word" seems to be defying this tendency: It represents the most vicious of epithets in the mouths of whites, too toxic to spell out completely even for the purpose of mentioning it to analyze its use, while it is common currency as a jocular term of solidarity (I guess), among blacks. This state of affairs is, at least, odd and, I would think, unstable, at least absent extraordinary levels of racial segregation (which, sadly, this nation seems capable of sustaining).

One might also speculate that such a state of affairs is harmful as well as odd. After all, should a term remain in use as a badge of solidarity for insiders if it also remains a bitter insult in the mouths of outsiders? Is it possible that the term does actually not shed its vitriol in the former capacity, no matter how often it is bandied about -- that behind the solidarity is a message of self-denigration or, at least, self-isolation?

I have no idea, being an expert in neither African-American culture nor semiotics. But I'd be curious if there are any other terms that function as amphibiously as the "n-word," as common currency within one community but toxic insult outside that community.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 24, 2010 at 07:15 PM | Permalink


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Is "queer" as mainstream or inoffensive as you are suggesting? I think its use is really confined to academia and activism. So I would have no trouble referring to someone as a professor of queer studies if that were her title or saying that someone was involved in queer issues if he characterized his work that way. (I would be very wary of presuming, because "queer" approaches are distinguishable from "gay" or "GLBT" approaches.)

Outside those contexts, my sense is that "queer" is overwhelmingly used as an insult. If my son came home from preschool and told me the boys on the playground were calling someone "queer," I would be quite upset. If it were the teachers, I would demand an explanation. Similarly, I expect that almost no one in the media will say that Ken Mehlman outed himself as "queer" today.

"Chicano" strikes me as similarly confined to the academic and activist circles.

Posted by: Managing Board | Aug 26, 2010 12:05:19 PM

I know nothing about linguistics or race or really anything, but I can imagine a number of scenarios in which a close girlfriend of mine could call me the "b-word" and it would be funny. However, I can't think of any instance in which a male, even a relative or close friend, could call me the same word and it be remotely funny.

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Aug 26, 2010 10:59:07 AM

I received the following comment on this thread from an email to our general PrawfsBlawg gmail account. For some reason, Typepad wasn't allowing this comment to post, so here it is.

"...that behind the solidarity is a message of self-denigration or, at least, self-isolation? I have no idea, being an expert in neither African-American culture nor semiotics. But I'd be curious if there are any other terms that function as amphibiously as the "n-word...."

If you have no expertise and no idea, why the tendentious speculation? I could speculate about the sensibilities of whites who seem strangely interested in and confused by the "n-word" phenomenon--while largely silent, at best, on substantive issues of racial justice/inequality. But I'd really rather not place you, without much more evidence, in the same camp as Dr. Laura. (Also, I second "Ben" above.)

There is a basic level of confusion. The convention today among blacks is to use the word "nigga," whereas the "n-word" as whites understand and use it is "nigger." This, for blacks, consciously marks a significant difference in pronunciation, meaning, and symbolism.

Given the peculiar racial history and present reality of this country, there should be no mystery that issues surrounding blacks are often anomalous.


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Posted by: Dan Markel | Aug 25, 2010 10:13:26 PM

You might be interested in Christopher Hom's excellent work on the semantics of epithets. He defends a view, combinatorial externalism, on which racial epithets express complex, socially constructed, negative properties determined in virtue of standing in the appropriate external, causal connection with racist institutions. The meanings of epithets are supported and semantically determined by their corresponding racist institutions.

Specific to the concern you raise, Hom writes, "Appropriated uses are the result of severing the external, causal link between the meaning of an epithet from its racist institution. To be successful, appropriation usually requires a counter-institution to support the altered, appropriated use. Successful counter-institutions must have broad appeal, have enough expressive content to support the appropriated epithet, and provide a salient counter-image to the racist institution."

Hom doesn't go this far in the paper, but one thought is that the counter-institution that has been developed around the n-word is complex, representing an effort both (a) to partially defuse and reclaim the word, but also (b) to preserve an awareness of the word's racist past and of the racist institutions that have historically been tied to the word and which continue to exist. (Those African-Americans who refuse to use the word may find the importance of the second to trump any value of the first, or they may doubt the viability of this kind of complex use.) It's not obvious to me that this is normatively undesirable, though it is tricky.

The situation is stable, to the extent that it is, because everyone is aware of the details of the practice: when an African-American uses the word, in certain contexts, the causal connection is to the counter-institution; when a non-African-American uses the word (rather than 'mentions' it), the causal connection is to the racist institution. (I think that if mentionings are problematic, it is only because people aren't always honed in to the use/mention distinction.) I confess to not knowing what exactly is supposed to make it the case that the causal link is to the counter-institution rather than the racist institution, but I imagine there is some social context story in the offing.

Also, I disagree with your assessment that 'queer' has evolved into an unproblematic mainstream noun (imagine an anti-gay bigot using the word), although 'gay' has, and 'fag' certainly has not (its use is similar to the n-word, actually, with a similar diversity of opinion regarding whether its use is forbidden even when used by someone who is gay).

Anyway, here is Hom's paper, published in the Journal of Philosophy:

Posted by: Alex Guerrero | Aug 25, 2010 1:15:10 PM

"When a group embraces an insulting term as a defiant banner of solidarity, should we expect the term eventually either (a) to migrate into the mainstream of language, losing its insulting force or (b) die out? If so, why has the "n-word" not yet moved in either direction?"

One, the "we" referenced here is the same "we" that branded the term as an insult initially. That "we" simply cannot have it both ways, effectively asserting superiority YET AGAIN over the insulted group. It's naive to assume the insulted group doesn't understand this wanting-to-have-it-both-ways at a fundamental level. Two, adoption by the insulted group has happened independently of the term's continued use pejoratively, so why must the insulted group bear the burden of parsing context?

Posted by: Anon | Aug 25, 2010 11:52:21 AM

Redneck. Not as toxic when used by outsiders, but what is?

Posted by: Ani | Aug 24, 2010 11:26:43 PM

"...while it is common currency as a jocular term of solidarity (I guess), among blacks."

It's not, at least not among all blacks, or even among most blacks. African Americans do not comprise a single, monolithic culture that has uniformly endorsed casual, friendly use of the n-word among the in group. That's a misconception. And so, it's a misconception that blacks who bristle at white people dropping n-bombs are somehow being hypocritical, or must have some complicated agenda to restrict whites' use of the term until the effort to reclaim it and remove its power has been fully successful. To many, it's just a nasty, offensive word, full stop.

Posted by: anon | Aug 24, 2010 10:19:47 PM

Praetor: That "youtube" item is sheer genius -- especially the last scene.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Aug 24, 2010 9:23:26 PM

Yes, the term "ninja" performs a similar function. There is a short documentary on it here:


Posted by: Praetor | Aug 24, 2010 9:16:18 PM

I've always been confused by why people are so bothered about the fact that black people are "allowed" to use the N word and white people are not. What's the big deal? Why are some white people so eager to use the word, despite its hateful history? Outside of academics, I cannot think of a single circumstance in which the use of the N word is preferable to the use of another word or, at the very least, saying "N word." That said, if African Americans want to continue using the word, they should be able to.

As for Dr. Laura -- after hearing the tape, I don't agree that she didn't use the word as an epithet. Sure, it started relatively innocently, but the repetition she used crossed a line when mixed with her transparent and growing anger.

Posted by: Ben Buchwalter | Aug 24, 2010 7:51:12 PM

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