Racism has been around for a long time. Not like most people needed reminding of that fact.
But one aspect of racism that has lingered long over society is a particular racist slur. Out of respect, I won’t type the actual word…but I know it’s blatantly obvious which one I’m referring to.
The word itself derives from the spanish and portuguese word ‘Negro’ (Which means black). It first saw usage from John Rolfe, English settler and husband of Pocahontas, who used the term ‘negars’ to describe African slaves being shipped to the Virginia colony (1). It was seemingly the only way used to address black people, until the mid 19th century, when ‘coloured’ became a more accepted term and was confirmed in 1909 by the founding of the NAACP (National Association For The Advancement Of Coloured People). In 1909, ‘coloured’ was the politest way black people were described, according to NAACP communications director Carla Sims (2).
However, the N word still persisted in use and frequently appeared in american literature of the time. Most notably is Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn’, though some argue that the book is an attack on racist attitudes of the time, rather an endorsement (3). In my opinion, such books shouldn’t be banned, and should be taught as historical pieces. It’s better to face up to the past, rather than shy away from it.
Whenever I scroll down my Twitter, I’ll see people discussing white people who have used this word. And more often than that, they’re using it to provoke, to anger, to insult.
Occasionally, I’ll have heard the defence “Black people say that word all the time! We should be able to say it too!”
That word doesn’t have any meaning to white people. There’s no hurt attached to it. No reminder of the hostilities done as that word was uttered. For white people to still insist on some undeniable right to say the word, is to ignore the wishes of a majority of black people, who don’t want to hear the word from their white counterparts.
The ethics and uses of the ‘N word’ should be left to the black community. That word affects them, they should have that choice. And there’s a diversity of opinion within the community – with some older black people opting never to use the word, and some younger black people feeling they’ve reclaimed it. Jay Z and Oprah represented these opinions in a 2010 interview.
In conclusion, I sincerely believe that white people should take a step back. The discussion isn’t ours to have anymore. We lost the right to that word, the minute we branded it as a slur for centuries. We got to know when to stop, take a step back and leave it be.
Mistakes from the past can’t be undone. But it is possible to work towards a better future, and it starts with listening with consideration.
- Shelley Fisher Fishin, Lighting out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).