Tuesday, February 14, 2006

N-Word(?) Please!

Over at BlackProf, Christian Bracey has an interesting post on a White Kentucky teacher's use of "niggah" in the classroom. The teacher is adamant that "niggah" is distinct from "nigger" and is not a racial slur.

Bracey references Randall Kennedy's book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. It's a fascinating book (I read it over the summer), and I think it yields a lot of insight into the controversy. Kennedy outlines the different contexts in which "nigger" is used, how it can mean different things in those contexts, and how culturally contingent the meaning of "nigger" is. "Nigger" of course is in its "original" form a racial slur, but sometimes its a term of more benign disparagement, and other times even used to connote endearment. The teacher in this case claims that he is cognizant of the difference, that "niggah" represents the latter meaning and not the former, and he shouldn't be disciplined.

Student reaction has been mixed. Bracey writes:
Student reaction was interesting. A number of them acknowledged that the n-word often is used among black students, and sometimes whites, as a term of affection. But many expressed surprise that a teacher would venture into this territory. Some black students were angered by the incident, claiming it was "very offensive" and warning that "if you're white, you don't say it." Another black student was far more conciliatory, describing Dawson as "a good teacher who likes rapping and using urban slang," and who most likely was not trying to hurt the black student's feelings. Stranger still is that there have been NO reports on what white students think of their teacher's comments.

That last part interests me, because I think this is an issue of serious concern to white people. We hear "nigger" being used in a positive format, read writers like Kennedy who explicitly urge that the word be stripped away from white supremacists, and don't know where we stand. One can say that one should err on the safe side, and that this teacher went too far, even if his intentions were benign. I'd agree with that, but even this paradigm still leaves a lot of room for problems to arise.

Take, for example, my purchase of "Nigger." I bought it in a bookstore while vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. How do you think I felt walking around South Carolina holding a big book with "Nigger" emblazoned across the front in bold letters? Short answer: I didn't, because I hastily put the book in a plastic bag to hide it from view. Even in the act of purchasing it, I pulled the whole "slide-it-between-two-non-objectionable-books" maneuver, as if I was buying a pornographic magazine. Can anyone expect a real race conversation to develop in this environment? This isn't the only time this sort of thing has happened. I've covered the title of my copy "Critical Race Theory: An Introduction", because I'm petrified that it sounds like a racist tract (ironic as that is). If someone asks me what I'm reading (especially if they're a minority), I'll answer "Critical Race Theory", and immediately add "it's kind of the cutting edge progressive philosophy on race issues" so they don't think it's a repeat of "The Bell Curve." Even the title of this post was problematic--I wavered heavily on whether it was "appropriate" for my own blog. And that's just my own blog and my own life. Lord knows how I'm going to broach this topic on TMV, which is hosted by someone else, in a way that actually informs the reader what I'm writing about without putting my host at the risk of being seen as rude (or worse).

I'd wager this same anxiety is part of why white students aren't giving their reaction to the controversy. I don't think that's the whole thing--some of it may be the media deciding this is a "Black" issue and not seeking out White commentators, or other issues that I haven't thought of yet. But I think this at least provides a good example of one of the major (but by no means sole or largest) barriers to racial progress in America.


Heiuan said...

Hmmm. The professor picked a hard row to hoe. He's trying to ignore the last 40 years of social and linguistic programming that say racial epithets are negatives. Of similar interest to me is why the epithet "nigger" has more negative connotations than the epithet "whitey". Just the type of stuff I wonder about, sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Because the epithet "whitey" doesn't have behind it the violent subjugation of an entire race of people.