Last week I made a post that lead to an interesting discussion about the use of the n-word. So when I saw this report last night on The Daily Show it seemed fitting to share it.

While the report itself is clearly humorous, the premiss behind it is very serious. New York Councilman Leroy Comrie wants to see the word ‘nigger’ banned. He insists that its use in any context is unacceptable. (I used it here ONLY because this post is about the word itself and so while most know what the ‘N word’ term means, it feels fair to spell it out once in a discussion about the word.)

“It’s my hope this resolution will spark a dialogue in all communities and begin to move our society, especially in our entertainment culture, toward a place where the n-word is simply unacceptable to be used in any context.” Said Comrie back in February when he introduced a bill in New York to have the word banned.

Indeed Comrie, and his associates who introduced the resolution, deemed the word so offensive that nowhere in the bill itself is the n-word actually spelled out.

The city council accepted the bill and the ban took effect on the 1st of March (2007). However, it has no real bite as anyone using the n-word won’t be fined or brought to account in any way as there is no legal way of enforcing the ban which is essentially just symbolic.

In my recent post, titled ‘Cooking up a beat‘, I linked to a YouTube video of some white guys doing a brass band version of ‘In da club’ by ’50 Cent.’ This lead Matt Whaley to comment, “The concept is fun though I don’t know why the guy thinks he can use the n-word.”

Matt later went on to explain his position further. “I’m suggesting that only black people (and some Hispanics to it seems) can GET AWAY WITH using that word. I understand that it’s a double-standard, as do an increasing number of people. However, the reality is that it has long been socially unacceptable for white people to use that word and we should know better, and support those who are pushing for it to be no longer socially acceptable in the black community as well.”

As I see it, there are two interesting issues here. The first and most obvious one to me is that banning any word is simply a waste of time. Free speech is an essential part of a free nation, therefore the banning of any word, no matter how offensive it might be, is a concerning step in the wrong direction for freedom. The New York City ban is toothless because any serious attempt to have a word banned with punishable consequences for its use would almost certainly be unsuccessful, not to mention an enormous waste of time and resources.

Make no mistake though, I have no real wish to use the n-word and seeing it fall away into the dusty corners of language would be just fine with me. However, Matt also touched on the fact that many people feel that the n-word is somehow acceptable when used by a black person. I have always found this understanding to be absolutely without merit. It seems utterly absurd to me to suggest that someone can’t use specific words based on nothing more than the color of their skin. In fact, this almost seems like an ironic kind of racism itself.

Of course, thanks to hip-hop and rap, use of the n-word is now commonplace, especially amongst the black community where some argue its use is entirely acceptable.

“The n-word used to be derogatory, to represent a negative image of black people, but now it’s become just a word, like “hey” and “yo.” It doesn’t mean much. I personally don’t mind it; it really doesn’t bother me. The context that African-Americans were living in back in the time when the word was an issue, is not the context we’re living in now. So, I don’t mind it being used lightly.” Said one 17 year old, Grace Petit, in a recent Wiretap magazine article.

In that same article 17 year old Kamal Stuart says “There’s people that say, ‘We changed the definition of the word, we changed the spelling.’ I don’t necessarily agree with that. Then, you have the others who frankly don’t really care. That’s due to ignorance, not knowing about the history of the word. I don’t use the word. I believe in being an example.”

Banning the n-word would serve little purpose. Language moves on, words change as do their meanings. The ‘N word’ is still offensive to most people, so offense that we can’t bring ourselves to say or write it in fact. However with rappers and hip-hop artists constantly pushing the word into a new social context it’s unlikely that the n-word will disappear anytime soon. What is certain though, is that any legal moves to ban this word, or indeed any word, would not achieve its goal and could conceivable backfire leading to an increase in its use by those who wish to thumb the noise of the powers the be.

Council bids to bad “n word”
Wiretap magazine article
NPR News – Ban the N word
The history of the N-word
Cooking up a beat
The Daily Show
[Video] Teacher Paul Dawson says Nigga (with an A)
[Video] Japanese n-word humor?
[Video] The N Word by Kamal Supreme