A Sort-of Case for the N-Word

    By his definition, Paul Dawson did not say the “N” word. The Louisville, Ken., high school teacher believes he faced the longest suspension in the history of his school district not for using the word “nigger” to tell a student to sit down, but rather for using “nigga,” or in his favored spelling, “niggah” — “So as to emphasize the ‘-ahh,’” he painstakingly explained.

    The difference for Dawson is all in the usage. The “N” word ending in “-er” is a racial slur; the word he uses is still derogatory, but not unspeakably so — the kind of word you’d toss out to a peer to make him pay attention.

    “Why is this word used so frequently?” bemoans a dorky-sweatered Dawson in a scolding session with a local TV station. He says he hears it from his black students all the time, and he says it like he’s heard it all the time in the video’d interview, which you’ve probably seen on the Internet.

    It’s been posted practically everywhere, which makes me feel like I’m either saying something we all kind of agree with or about to commit social suicide as I hereby make a solemn confession:

    I kind of sympathize with Paul Dawson.

    A New Coinage

    It’s not because I’m a racist. Believe me: As a fourth-year social science major — hell, an urban studies major — I’m far too learned to be a racist. But I am, despite my so-called education, completely ignorant when it comes to actual interracial relations. I have never had a black friend. There were approximately 5 black students in my entire high school of 2,000, and barely more (1 percent) at my public university of 20,000. While I do recognize that this is a terrible lapse in my life experience, it is one on behalf of which I’m particularly upset at the powers that be. If you want to point fingers at racists, let’s look at the people who run this country.

    But racism probably had nothing to do with what Paul Dawson was suspended for. What he failingly attempted to argue in his trial by TV-news — the station’s report held the teacher’s testimony at arm’s length — was essentially that you can’t have a taboo word if people say it all the time. One definition of the N-word — the kind a sick few people still use — is a slur, a taboo, a violence. But another one is a moderately deprecating pronoun for use in some casual situations.

    Many nonblack people — far more than this man’s students, who he claims use it as frequently as “dude” or “hey man” — say it all the time. I hear it occasionally in passing groups around Price Center. Dawson offered some examples of the proper usage of the “slang version” of the N-word: “Niggah this. Niggah please. Can a niggah get a pencil?”

    So the suspended teacher was right in a way: There is a new meaning for the N-word. He just used it in an entirely inappropriate context.

    Old Words Somehow Still Hip

    This isn’t the first originally offensive pronoun birthed in black culture that’s been purloined by a much bigger group. White people — and also Asian and Mexican Americans — love to rip off the music, fashion and language of blacks to such a point that most of them don’t even realize they’re doing it anymore. Black culture has virtually defined what is cool in the United States since the concept of “cool” was created by (black) jazz musicians sometime around the middle of last century.

    As each successive generation of black culture was absorbed into the mainstream, new words became “cool” to other (not just white) people, who basically want to seem like they were familiar with the cool things black people were up to. Pronoun usages of “cat,” “dog,” “fool,” “bro,” and “bitch” go back further than gangsta rap (and even 40s’ jazz musicians) — and you probably still think they’re “hip” (another theft).

    And while some blacks argue that the widespread hijacking of their culture by everyone else is a reason that this word, with its particularly derogatory connotations, should be left to them alone, the widespread use of it has made that already a fantasy. It’s adoption by the hip-hop community, with subsequent success in the mainest of the mainstream, virtually guaranteed the word would follow the same path as earlier pronouns black culture produced.

    Until today, the nearly unspoken rule of the N-word has presumably been that black people could use the N-word — because they’re black — but no one else could. If a white person said it, it was grounds for believing or at least heartily suspecting that they were a racist — you couldn’t use the word without it meaning something highly derogatory. That is simply not true any more.

    Words are not only defined by what they have meant, but also what they have come to mean. The way Dawson said he and his students usually use the N-word is far different from the uses that have made it such a particularly embittering slur.

    That was the crucial lapse in judgment Dawson made: His students may use the slang word constantly, but, even if the student he was addressing had said it first, the context in which Dawson invoked it — telling the boy to sit down — was a particularly mis-construable one. The slur would have fit in too easily.

    Free Niggah

    When Dawson claims that he “repeated the same insult because that’s sort of what I’ve been trained to do,” it’s a testament that should be familiar to those of us in the MTV generation. This word — the slang, not the slur — is in our vocabularies, from music, TV, films, the Internet or people we know. We are sometimes tempted to use it.

    To distinguish between people for whom it is socially acceptable to use the word exclusively because of their skin color, and people who may not for the same reason, goes against the fundamental spirit of the civil rights movement, rather than furthering it. Our generation was supposed to be brought up to know and act like racial equality was a foregone conclusion; the partial-taboo status of the N-word in the face of its current popularity directly contradicts that. If a black person can say a word that means “dude” or “man,” anyone should be able to. Otherwise, our social vocabulary — what enables us to richly communicate with each other — is being cut off at the race line.

    If we are really going to try, finally, to live according to what we all know — that people are fundamentally equal regardless of where they were born, what they look like, who they worship or who they love — that means fully coming to terms with the habits of our past (and present) that were not so wise, not running from them.

    Instead of sealing off the dark corners of our culture in taboo status for all but a select few to reconfigure, we all need to light them up and laugh at them and recycle their misery into something we can use. Wasn’t that the Western argument about the Mohammed cartoons? That the honesty of freedom of speech trumps the sensitivity of a relative few?

    Clearly, not in Dawson’s case. After what seemed to have been a severe tongue-lashing by both his bosses, Dawson was whimpering in defeat. “What kind of example are you setting if you use a word that you don’t want them to use?” the reporter asked him.

    It was a silver bullet. Dawson failed to come up with the answer, which was: You use the words of your surroundings to communicate with it in ways you know it will understand. He chose the wrong circumstance.

    But he did highlight the dangers of post-civil rights equality, of hauling your stereotypes out (the ones about you and the ones you’ve got for others) and seeing them for all they’re not worth by looking at where they came from (and not forgetting, even momentarily).

    Dawson was confused about this last point, but not completely wrong in pointing out a new usage for an old word. No other course makes sense than to acknowledge this as a new word and deal with it — however dangerous that appears to be.

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