The Word That Must Not Be Said

by Juan Conejo Avila


Let me tell you a little about myself. You already know my name, but you might not know I come from Costa Rica, a country with a very different culture than that of the United States. Even though we have people of varying appearances and backgrounds, I have never been asked to identify myself racially or ethnically. We have what you would call whites, blacks, Asians, and of course Latinos, but in Costa Rica, we are all people of the same nation—we do not separate groups based on this category alone. Because of my background, it has shocked me to witness institutionalized discrimination of people based solely on their appearance, and I find it hard to accept terms like “Hispanic American” or “African American,” when you almost never encounter the term European American. This seems to imply that individuals perceived as white are the actual Americans, and all others are subgroups hierarchically submitted to the standard. Among the many curiosities on the subject of racial vocabulary, I have found most fascinating the heavy censorship applied to the word “nigger.”

A word should not be feared. Jacques Derrida was a French philosopher best known for the concept of Deconstruction. He believed that between the “signified” and the “signifier” there is a gap that keeps meaning from ever settling into a stable, permanent state. The speakers of a language ultimately decide what a word means. It is human society, through a decentralized process, that decides the significance of a word. The meaning is not fixed or established by the author; it is constructed by the reader, it can be interpreted and it changes with time. All words, even momentous ones, are bound to this evolution. 

Nigger is a powerful word. It first appeared in the 16th century, possibly coming into English from the French negre, which means black. By the 18th century, when slavery flourished in the United States, it had already become the term used by the dominant white population to refer to black slaves. Nowadays in the United States, it continues to be a sign of degradation, racism and hate. In response to this reality, many people have chosen to eliminate the word from their vocabulary, and when forced by a particular situation to refer to it, they will resort to the euphemism “The N-word.” However, this is not the only solution to the problem of how to deal with this troublesome word.

Reappropriation is a cultural process through which a group reclaims a word or symbol that has been used to attack, discriminate or otherwise abuse said group, reversing its intention. Through reappropriation of words and symbols, oppressed groups have historically been able to fight back against abuse—the weapons of the enemy, often the words themselves, have many times proven to be very effective. The words “gay” and “queer” are testament to this process.

The gay liberation movement started in the 1960s and is still going strong. Before this time, the word gay was thrown around as a derogatory term for homosexuals, who were actively persecuted as deviant members of society. Events like the student riots of May 1968 in France, where students took the streets and demanded social change; the Stonewall riots of New York in 1969, where members of the gay community demonstrated against discrimination; and the civil rights movement created a more hospitable environment for the LGBT community to reclaim their rights and to reappropriate the word gay. Years later, we now have the Gay Pride movement, under which the LGBT community fights discrimination and hate. The importance of the word gay in this struggle cannot be understated. 

Randall Kennedy, professor of Law at Harvard, points out in his book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word” that we must have “caution before attributing the worst meaning and motives to any word or symbol since all can be put to a variety of purposes, good as well as bad. The swastika evokes memories of evils that are among the worst in all of world history. Yet artists [...] have movingly used the swastika in a variety of useful ways, including comedic lampoons designed to satirize Hitler’s colossal failure.” Christianity, too, took the Roman machine of torture, the cross that had been used to desecrate and kill Jesus of Nazareth, and transformed it into its symbol, possibly the most recognizable in the world.

This is why we should neither fear nor reject any words—we should only reject particular meanings, some of which might be charged with hate. By not daring to say a word, we hallow it and empower its hateful connotation. We turn it into a strong symbol of hate that has actual power to damage others. If, on the contrary, we use the word with a constructive, ironic, comedic or otherwise positive meaning, we can strip it of its harmful capabilities and have it rejoin our vernacular as a rehabilitated member of the dictionary. American impresario and fashionista, Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, explained to Oprah Winfrey his rationale behind the use of the word nigga in his music, to which he responded: “Words. People give words power. Our generation, what we did is we took the word and took the power out of that word. You know? We turned a word that was very ugly and hurtful into a term of endearment. I mean, even when someone says it there is still intention behind what you say ... because if we just start removing words from the dictionary just make up a word the next day. So we don’t dress the problem, the problem is racism.”

The use of nigger or nigga has also become an important subject in academia. Professor Kennedy insists in his book that “nigger does not signify only one thing—a term of racial abuse—and should not be forced to mean only that one thing.” This opens up the interpretation of the word to new meaning — both positive and negative—presenting an opportunity to reappropriate the word. He warns us against rejecting or ignoring the word by asking: “But what is the alternative? An eradicationist response might decree the removal of all literature, without exception, from a school’s curriculum that contains the term nigger. [...] But what about the book that you are reading at this very moment? Or what about the many classics of American literature that contain the word nigger, including Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man,’ Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail,’ or Richard Pryor’s ‘That Nigger’s Crazy.’” This would, evidently, present a threat to a part of American culture and to the principle of freedom of speech and conscience. 

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all,” Oscar Wilde said, defending freedom of speech in artistic expression, even though he knew hate and discrimination during his lifetime as a gay man in 19th century England, where he was tried and condemned for the “crime”of his sexual preference. Trying to get words out of people’s vocabulary is a bit like burning books;  as Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

All of these ideas point in the direction of reappropriation. The meaning of nigger is changing. Professor Kennedy points out that it is increasingly used by blacks to refer to other blacks, and even by whites to refer to other whites, so much that it has become the standard in certain contexts; “as a linguistic landmark, nigger is being renovated.” This, however, doesn’t mean that its pejorative meaning has been completely eliminated. “Nigger as a harbinger of hatred, fear, contempt, and violence remains current, to be sure. But more than even before, nigger also signals other meanings and generates other reactions, depending on the circumstances.”

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown, goes so far as to present himself as a proponent of the use of nigga. Debating Dr. Cornel West on whether it is permissible to say this word, he says “I come from a tradition that respects the integrity of particular contexts, which means that the N-word grew out of a loving, affirming culture that used it in opposition to how the dominant white culture was using it.” He takes it even further, completely transforming the meaning and use of the word during his speech at the State of the Black Union in 2005. Here he presents the concept of “nigga as a global phenomenon,” saying that oppressed and discriminated people are niggas wherever they are. “That’s why I use the term with promiscuity. I understand, that as a nigga in America there are niggas throughout the world. Can we connect through our core niggadom to understand the vicious ways in which we have been subverted? And finally, as people of color, we cannot afford to (in one sense) give voice to policies that don’t recognize the fundamental humanity of our brothers and sisters.” This view not only takes away any and all demeaning connotation from the word, but transforms it into a unifying and empowering idea, an idea under which all marginalized people who suffer tragedies similar to those of the blacks in the United States,can find shelter. 

In the case of Colorado College, the debate on the use of this word is no less enthralling. When asked about what she thought on the use of this word and the power that has been attached to it, professor of English and director of Race and Ethnic Studies Claire Garcia said, “I have very mixed feelings. The word has received an inordinate amount of power and it should be demystified. The meaning is changing, but it still has so much damaging power because of internalized shame. I don’t think any word should be that powerful. Anxiety, shame. When you hear it, some part of you is saying, ‘Am I really that?’” I pointed out that the eradication of the word could lead to the danger of forgetting the racist past of this country, to which she remarked that, “Forgetting is the great American pastime. Forgetting is dangerous.” Finally, she broadened the subject by turning the question on me. In the context of what this word represents, “How do we deal with the legacy of white supremacy?”

Professor Manya Whitaker warned me that: “reappropriation requires historical knowledge about the word. I personally don’t believe in reappropriation. It can be equally dangerous to forget it than to normalize it.” To this, I responded with the example of the word gay. She acknowledged that indeed, the gay community has handled reappropriation in a better way than the black community is doing it right now. She explains that the black community is still struggling internally with feelings of disgruntlement that keep it from reaching the necessary consensus to move forward, saying, “It is a good model, the gay community has done an excellent job. But as a body of people [the black community] is still angry. It should rid itself of resentment and fear.” She also pointed out that she worries whether young people that have retaken the word are prepared to educate others about it, about its history and its current use. She agreed with my assertion that the words nigger and gay are simply in different stages of reappropriation. She asserts about nigger: “My generation is the transition generation, but our parents said ‘you can’t use it,’ I don’t use it, but then I see my generation using it. I have friends who use it all the time. My kids’ generation will see it successfully reappropriated.”

I also had the chance to talk to DeAira Hermani, sophomore at CC and co-chair of the Black Student Union. I asked her a specific question: Who can say nigger? “It can be acceptable for blacks and other non-whites, because they can relate to similar struggles. Not whites. When whites do it in the case of music, [it] is not so uncomfortable because they are repeating someone else’s words. But in general, whites shouldn’t say it.” She, too, makes the point that awareness of the background is extremely relevant: “If someone is going to say the word nigga, that person has to know the history of the word. It should not be taken lightly by whites. Saying it just because you are trying to be be cool, or emulate celebrities is not OK.” I inquired if she has ever bumped into this word in her day-to-day life at CC: “In CC, it happens, but they are cautious if there are black people around. People will apologize if they realize there is a black person around. I have never heard it being used directly against someone.”

The story of this very article is, I think, an interesting reflection on the problem at hand. I first came up with the idea of naming it “What can niggers learn from fags?”, implying that the current black community of the United States could learn important lessons from the gay liberation movement of the past century. Quickly, it was called to my attention how offensive this title was. And, although I knew this beforehand, I grossly underestimated the effect it could have on readers from the United States. 

This reaction is, in my opinion, proof that the effect of nigger and other words has been excessively empowered by white supremacist discourse. The imaginary concept of biological race has had a profound impact in this country, and has placed words like nigger, beaner, kike, chink and many others on pedestals where no one dares to touch them. This makes them strong and fearsome. Others take the words and put them away, out of sight and out of mind. This carries the extreme danger of forgetting history. Most of the ideas exposed here can be applicable to any form of offensive language, as every minority group suffers abuse and discrimination in one way or another. Jay-Z's words carry stupendous significance and go straight to the root of this issue: Words are not the problem, racism is the problem.