Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Nigger: Just a Word, or Something More?


A Philadelphia Police Officer is in some hot water today thanks to racial comments he made while escorting a college student journalist.

It brings to the fore a legitimate question: are words such as 'nigger', 'spic', 'gook', 'harp', 'nip', 'chink', 'fag' or 'gook' simply that, words, or are they more?

I've heard this argument made any number of times, that these are just words, and if people are going to keep getting offended by words like 'nigger' then they are setting themselves up for a lifetime of taking offense.

True enough in that any discussion on this issue, be it in the local newspapers, at the office water cooler, in an interview room at a police facility, on the internet, or in the halls of Congress or the United Nations is not going to change people's habits. It is not going to stop people from using these words, either in their most benign sense or their most derogatory.

I have also heard the argument as a question why, for instance, black people are so offended by the word 'nigger' when uttered by a white man or anyone from any other race, and yet are willing to toss it around with ease amongst one another?


"Yo, he my nigger" or "You one stupid nigger" or many other usages too numerous to mention that I have personally heard with my own ears. I have heard black people use these exact phrases among one another without anyone taking offense, or at least without anyone making an issue of it, usually without even an eyebrow raised.

For a long time in my life, I just didn't get it either. I thought that it was just another way for a black person to try to gain sympathy, to feign victimization by the white man, to play the race card. If I tried to list for you how many times in my life that I was called 'honkey' or 'whitey' or 'white boy' or 'cracker' or 'mick', it would fill a book. If I listed for you how many times those words offended me when used towards me, you could count those times on one hand. So I just didn't get it.

Then one day about a dozen years or so ago I was involved in a conversation about this very topic with a fellow police officer who happened to be black. At the end of the conversation, I said to him "So your people can toss that word around all you want, can call one another 'nigger', can use it any way you want, but if I call you a 'nigger', that's wrong and you're offended?" His simple one-word response: "Exactly."

Why it took a smart fella like me three decades of his life to understand a simple concept that was summed up by this cop's one word answer is fodder for another entire article. But the simple idea is this: some words offend people of ethnic, racial, or sexual groups. Period. They just do. And the fact is that those of us who may not be in their particular group will never, ever understand the emotions behind those feelings.

We don't need to understand the raw emotions. All we need to know is that these words offend, and so we should refrain from using them in most circumstances. So does that mean that we can never, ever use pejorative terms or slang words? No, of course not. Everything has its place. For instance, so far in this article I have used the word 'nigger' nine times, counting the headline and that last mention in this sentence. Using any word in a legitimate intellectual discussion is appropriate.

There has been a major copout in today's society where people from Oprah to Obama use the phrase "the N word" in public, but then according to reliable sources aren't afraid to use "nigger" in private conversations. Failing to use the word itself in an intellectual discussion helps to raise the word above it's meaning.

It is the meaning that lies behind the word when used in a derogatory sense that releases its true negative emotional responses. This is particularly so when it is uttered by a member of one group that has historically been in a position of power and influence against some member of a group that has been historically deprived of that power.

Now just because of my own personal enlightenment, don't take that to mean that I have never used the word 'nigger' in conversation, I have. And so has almost every single person who is reading this article: cop, lawyer, judge, politician, factory worker, businessman, whatever.

It is one of the reasons that we all knew instinctively that Mark Fuhrmann was lying in the O.J. Simpson case. The man is a big city police detective and was asked if he ever used the word 'nigger', and replied that he had not. You might as well have painted a huge word 'LIAR' across his forehead in capital letters after that.

Mark Fuhrmann could have been, and probably was, telling the truth about most every other aspect of the case and his involvement. But no one was going to believe him after this point, particularly after the defense made a concerted effort to prove that he had lied about this issue.

One thing that I can say for sure is that I have never used that word directly towards any black person, or in the presence of any black people, in any derogatory way. Even if I felt that I was in the presence of someone that I felt comfortable with and had no fear that they would take offense, I wouldn't use that word in that way simply out of respect.

Now understand this, most cops are very comfortable around other cops. That thing about being white, black or yellow, but when the uniform is on we are all blue? That isn't just talk most of the time, that is how most cops genuinely feel. We toss around racial and sexual and other slang phrases and profanities among one another that would make a sailor blush. But we also know our place. We know when we are among friends, when we can let our hair down, and can toss around the bullshit without having to worry about anyone taking offense.

The officer in the particular case that has broken in the local news was not among friends, and should have known better. He was driving a reporter around with him, one who was doing street-level research for a story that she was going to write. Was he trying to impress her in some way by acting tough and hard and macho? Who knows. Who cares. The fact is that this young rookie cop was stupid to make those comments to anyone, let alone a college journalism student writing for her newspaper.

Now some would say that this officer should be off the police force simply for having those feelings. I disagree. We all bring a wide variety of personal experiences and backgrounds to this job. None of us can help the way that we were raised, what we were exposed to, or what was our 'normal' for a couple of decades before we ever considered police work as a profession. What we can do, however, is grow, mature, and learn how to set aside any personal prejudices and perform a professional job for all citizens, regardless of any background of theirs which may be different from our own.

The young officer in question works in a tough area of North Philly, an area where he is exposed to a great deal of crime, hurt, pain, and even death on a daily basis. It is an area that is mostly black, and where most of the murder, drug dealing, and crime is perpetrated by blacks against other blacks. It is not hard to become jaded by all of that.

For some white people who hear about blacks feeling oppressed by the 'man' or the 'system', that is a hard pill to swallow, the idea that black citizens in these areas expect more from us than they do of their neighbors. But they, and I believe the officer in this case, have it all wrong.

Most of the people in that area of the city are not bad people. They don't deal or use drugs. They don't rob folks. They don't expect more from white people, or the system, or the man, than they do from their neighbors. They expect their neighbors to treat them with courtesy and respect and perhaps even affection, and they have a right to expect these things. As always, it is the few who make it difficult for the many in these neighborhoods. There just happen to be more of those 'few' bad apples in that particular neighborhood, for any number of reasons, none of which is the fault of those 'many' good folks.

So to white people everywhere, get it for once. You can't call a black person a 'nigger' at all. You can't use the term 'niggers' in regards to black people in any public discussion or forum where the term is being used in a derogatory manner.

It doesn't matter how many times blacks use it among themselves, it is simply different, and you need to understand and respect that as a simple fact. The same goes for any other derogatory slang word for any other group as well. Words like 'nigger' are not just words, they are indeed something more.

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