Viewpoint: Remember the History behind Words

Geoff Allen ’23

“[T]he assumption that all Black people are necessarily affronted by the reference as by the use of the n-word implies a considerable lack of intellectual fortitude,” wrote an interracial couple in response to a racial incident on campus last March. Only a handful of sentences have really grappled me so much since I became an editor for the Voice. Choosing to publish THAT article was one of the hardest decisions my co-editor and I had to make at the time. And on top of that, the student body exploded. Yik Yak was full of anonymous comments bashing the Voice for even allowing a couple to make a Viewpoint like they did. Affinity groups assembled in rapid notice to discuss the implications of that 500 word opinion. Yet, nothing came out of it beyond that. Talks of students wanting to respond existed, but Spring Break 2022 was just around the corner. Who had the time? Who wanted to take the time? The relevance just died out, and the discourse was missed. This came in the middle of a year of neglected manifestos, hate crimes spiking up once more and an entire racial movement that had shaken the country and other parts of the world is slowly becoming more of a historical event rather than an ongoing phenomenon. 

Now a year later, I am writing today, to argue against this viewpoint. We know the n-word, but seldom do we question the history. In some ways, the authors made a valid point for this reason. The n-word today is not a word solely defined for historical characteristics. Amongst youth discourse, especially, generations that have followed millennials have reappropriated the word for good reason. The power of the word, especially with spelling using the “-er” ending, has changed over time and does not retain the same ethnocentric associations with western colonialism and American segregation as a few examples. The word quite literally changed, beyond changing the spelling from “Nigger” to “Nigga.” Today, many Black folk have become more comfortable than ever before uttering the word to their colleagues, even sometimes non-Black ones. Even descendants of the same people who used the word against them, are referred to in this manner. And yet, it is considered taboo for a non-Black person to say it in response or retaliation from a politically correct stance. In this context, the Black diaspora have been able to regain the word. Of course, the word will continue to be used by some individuals with racial intentions, but the power dynamic has already reversed. This phenomenon, which many take for granted, returns some bit of power to the Black individual, which most still lack in many other aspects of life. The history is there, and it will always be there. 

I write this knowing I do not speak on behalf of all Black folk. I am embarrassed to say I first learned this information from a white high school English teacher who wrote both spellings “Nigga” and “Nigger” on the chalkboard while omitting saying the word itself. Whether this teacher should be scrutinized similar to the lacrosse coach that started this Viewpoint controversy is up to your interpretation. But just because a single word has become more inclusive to its target group, does not mean it should become a public domain for everyone to use now, even if some disagree. Because I’d like to hear a non-Black person try and outwardly say it without remorse.

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