Nigger! The Ongoing Saga of a Most Controversial Word

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

One thing is for certain; despite the undeniable and unprecedented havoc that the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has wrought across the globe, the truth is such a dilemma has not prohibited some individuals from participating in behavior that is nothing short of recidivist and reductive. Psychopathic men and women have threatened to infect others https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/clarissajanlim/new-jersey-man-coronavirus-terrorist-threat with the virus. People have engaged in retrograde horrendous racist and xenophobic behavior, menacingly targeting specific groups for harassment due to their race or ethnicity. Singling out people based on regional geography has also become commonplace. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_incidents_of_xenophobia_and_racism_related_to_the_2019%E2%80%9320_coronavirus_pandemic .

However, this article is not about the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead it is about the ongoing use of and debate surrounding the socially loaded N-word: nigger. Recently, a NASCAR driver, Kyle Larson, was fired from the league for his casual and callous use of the word while speaking with others in a tense conversation. https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/04/14/sports/ap-car-nascar-larson-fired-.html. To his credit, which is not saying much considering the situation at hand, Larson did not attempt to deflect blame, dance around the controversy, react defensively, or pass the blame onto others. He quickly took responsibility for his retrograde actions and did not attempt to offer any lame, half-assed, or pathetic excuses for what he said http://talks-kyle-larson-about-racial-slur/ and did. He deserves some credit for admitting to the reality that he engaged in a ferocious level https://www.tmz.com/2020/04/13/nascar-driver-kyle-larson-n-word-virtual-race/ of idiocy.

His vile antics prompted fellow colleague and the sole Black NASCAR driver in the league, Bubba Wallace, to weigh in, albeit reluctantly, as Wallace admits, on the controversy in a lengthy response on twitter. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/04/16/bubba-wallace-nascars-only-african-american-driver-talks-kyle-larson-about-racial-slur/. Wallace’s commentary prompted an ample amount of commentary from a large segment of the social media crowd. The truth is that he penned a deeply pensive, persuasive, and heartfelt message.

Of course, Kyle Larson is hardly the only non-Black person to have spouted the word nigger in the public sphere. Who can forget comedian Michael Richard’s vile, crude,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BoLPLsQbdt0 and viciously racist rant in 2006. Richards hurled his racist diatribe words toward a group of twenty-somethings who he felt where overly loud and ‘disrespectful’ to him. Whether this was, in fact, the case, one thing is certain, Richard’s response was the epitome of racial hostility and disrespect. Paula Deen, Ted Nugent, and Bill Maher are just some of the White men and women who have employed the word as part of their verbal arsenal. In the case of Nugent, it was done brazenly and without apology. Truth be told, Paula Deen’s public act of contrition appeared less than genuine. Her defiant body language spoke for itself.

In the perpetually racially hostile world of right -wing media/blogs, some individuals were quick to make the weak argument that Larson is biracial. It is true that he is half-Asian and of Japanese descent. with that being said, guess what?! So what?! This fact, in and of itself, does not absolve his gross insensitivity and derision of people of African heritage. Putting his biracial heritage aside, KYLE LARSON IS NOT BLACK! Period! Thus, it was understandable that he was greeted with an intense backlash from others who were deeply offended by his untoward racial rhetoric.

For those on the political, conservative, and cultural right, assuming that simply being non-White affords someone a license to disrespect other Whites or non-Whites is ludicrous. Truthfully, I don’t believe that many people with right-wing views honestly believe this to be the case. Rather, they were in sympathetic unison with Larson because he directed his racial ire toward Black people. This is a group of people who many on the far right love to objectify, marginalize, and deeply despise. Black people, in their minds, are not seen as fully human.

More interestingly and importantly, while Kyle Larson is the product of White and Japanese heritage, the environment he was raised in and his upbringing were predominately White, and he has unabashedly admitted identifying as such. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/apr/16/kyle-larson-fired-driver-n-word-nascar-motor-sports/. Thus, it is hardly surprising that he would see himself as White and behave in accordance with what he feels are the race and gender privileges afforded him. Indeed, in all likelihood, like many of his racially bigoted, all White cohorts, Larson likely views more than a few Black people as ‘lesser than,’ if not outright as niggers, whether consciously or subconsciously, despite his claims that he was not raised to be racially intolerant.

What was also noteworthy and, quite frankly, downright disingenuous, was that many bloggers-were posting feverishly protective defenses of Mr. Larson and simultaneously questioning why it was permissible for Black people to espouse the word nigger but not other people. As can be imagined, the usual comments and whataboutisms were plastered all over various blogs:

  • The word is used in rap and hip hop songs all the time.
  • What about Black people who call one another that word all the time?
  • Look at all the Black comedians who use it in their stand-up routines.
  • What about all the Black athletes who say the word?

And on and on and on.

While this is true to some extent, the fact is that it does not create and justifiable reason for you or any other White person to use the word. Any sane person with any degree of historical awareness is astute enough to know that the word nigger is a racially loaded word that was wickedly and maliciously employed by more than a few Whites in a sinister effort to psychologically malign and dehumanize Black people. The word was aggressively weaponized to demoralize us. There was nothing positive or redeeming in its use as it related to Black people. Within the Black community, the word is more nuanced and varied. Thus, debate regarding the term is ongoing. The all-Black jury is still out, so to speak.

Even more disturbing is that some White people are so adamant in their unhinged efforts to make perverse justifications for using the word. My question and response to them is, really? Are they serious? Why would they even want to use the word?! Is it a free speech issue? Hell, as a man, I can say the word c*nt. That does not mean I should want to make all sorts of perverse justifications for doing so. The same would apply to wanting to use other racially demeaning terms to verbally assault and insult other ethnic groups. No thanks! Not my style!

If a White person is quoting a piece of literature, reading an article where the word is used or in a similar vein, then use of the term is allowed. Otherwise, it is a word that should not be pursed on a White person’s lips or coming out of his or her mouth. Period. Can they be stopped from using the word? Of course not. However, the fact that they would argue so fiercely in defense of having the right to use such a less than flattering word is questionable. Moreover, for those who fall into this category, I doubt that the main reason for taking such an ardent stance is free speech, but rather, speech of another variation. Sad!

Historian, Public Speaker and Cultrual Critic, Elwood Watson, Ph.D., is a professor at East Tennessee State University and author of the recent book, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press), which is available in paperback and Kindle via Amazon and other major book retailers.

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