A Reasoned Defense of the Word “Nigger”

Let’s get something straight off the top: There is no more vile a word in the English language than “nigger”. Full stop.

However, let’s agree — at the very least — that it is a word.

If it’s a word, then you might want to consider that there are just certain times when its use is appropriate and no other word will do. Otherwise, I have a number of objectionable words that maybe we can talk about banning.

I’m a writer. I’m in love with words and language. I hate euphemisms. This awful construct our society has created, “The N-Word”, is an affront to the English language. It takes one of its ugliest words and masks it inside a Disney-friendly jumble of letters. It should come with a happy face.

I’ve wanted to write this essay for a good long time and have pitched it to nearly every editor I’ve had for almost 2 decades. Many years ago I merely told an editor the title of this article (which I had already been writing in my head). We were on the phone, but they blinked so hard I could hear it. After giving them the rough outline, I was told, basically, “Good luck with that.”

Every editor since has said pretty much the same thing.

It’s also worth noting that “The N-Word” is a verbal construct. In print, instead, it’s often rendered as ni**er. Oddly enough, another word rendered this way is fa**ot. It’s like we have a Phony War on the Letter G.

Here’s what triggered the original though in my head so many years ago:

I was watching CNN back in the day when Fox “News” had not yet divided the nation. It had a rainbow panel of people on to talk with the editor of a magazine called “Hebe”, by Jews, for Jews. Her contention was that they were reclaiming the word, much like Queer. It was a very interesting and thoughtful discussion during which I heard the words “spick”, “kike”, “wop”, “chink”, and a few other horrible racial epithets, but all used correctly and within context.

Yet, there was one jarring note in this multicultural discussion.

Whenever anyone on the panel came to a certain word, they stuttered and then said, “The N-Word”. Not a single one of them had a problem with the list of words above. As a young Jew Boy who was called “kike” while I was growing up, I was — somehow — offended and — yes — a little envious of that. Why do only Blacks get their most hated word censored?

On Friday Bill Maher shocked people on the left and the right (who defend racist Ted Nugent) because he made a joke with the word “nigger” in it. I’m not going to defend the joke for two reasons:

  1. The joke itself. I didn’t find it that funny. It was too oblique. I didn’t understand the target. Ben Stasse? Really?The joke might have been funny (in this former Gag Writer’s opinion) if Maher had been talking to either a hardcore racist, or someone like Jesse Jackson or Reverend Sharpton, who condemned the joke.
  2. Comedy is a High Wire Act performed without a net. Comedians, especially those doing live shtick like Maher, use their lightning fast skills with verbiage to get laughs. Sometimes you fall down, go boom. [See: Gilbert Godfried, Kathy Griffin, etc.]

In humour, timing is everything. Maher couldn’t have timed his riposte worse considering the political climate of the country right now.

I’ve written about issues of race for years. Was I offended by Maher? No. But, it doesn’t matter whether I was or not because I don’t get to decide what offends other people. Other people get to decide that. Like the NYTs Wesley Morris, who doesn’t seem terribly offended either, calling it something “for the basket labeled ‘Life’s too short.'” Answering his own question in What Was Bill Maher’s Big Mistake?, he writes [emphasis mine]:

[I]ntention is tricky in comedy. Mr. Sasse said something that was, on its face, unsavory. You don’t need much of an imagination to envision Chris Rock, Larry Wilmore or Wanda Sykes taking a whack at that line. ABC’s sitcom “black-ish” exists, partly, to satirize these sorts of conversational bloopers.

But Bill Maher isn’t Chris Rock. He’s not on “black-ish.” He’s a 61-year-old white man who would never get a pass for jesting about slavery or the N-word. (His track record inspires too much doubt to give any benefit.) That’s a license reserved, arguably, for Louis C.K., or Sarah Silverman in her performance-art prime — white comedians who have really grappled with what it means to flirt with racially inflammatory language and ideas, what it means for the flirtation to fail. Mr. Maher’s approach to television doesn’t necessitate that kind of rehearsed rumination. The appeal of “Real Time” is its on-the-spot discourse, its anti-rehearsal. That looseness can tip easily into blurting, flatulence and worse.

The insult to injury here involves the conflation of Mr. Maher’s transgression and the umbrage he feigned at being asked to work in the fields. As my sister might say: Oh, he fancy now. For a long time, black people have deployed slavery-derived hierarchies as a social and psycho-political sorting mechanism. A house assignment might have won a slave less arduous work but more suspicion and contempt from her counterparts in the fields. No one self-identifies as a house Negro — unless that person is making a joke. And even then that person probably shouldn’t be Bill Maher.

C’mon, Mr. Morris. A funny joke would still be a funny joke, no matter who says it. However, sometimes race adds a frisson to a joke that can make us all uncomfortable.

Take Lenny Bruce, please.

I discovered Lenny Bruce in my teenage years through Frank Zappa, who released The Berkeley Concert in 1971 on his Bizarre label. The concert was recorded in 1965 and Bruce had been dead 5 years by the time the record was released. I read his autobiography, How To Talk Dirty and Influence People and began collecting some of the earlier vinyl, which was really hard to find. Lenny Bruce didn’t sell a lot of records. Therefore, there weren’t a lot of Bruce records pressed.

I’m not trying to turn this into a treatise on comedy. To remind you, I’m writing about the word “nigger”. Lenny Bruce had more than one routine in which he invoked the word, but this one stuck with me over the years as an undeniable truth, delivered almost as if it were a Jazz riff:

Imagine that. If “nigger didn’t mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him a nigger at school.” Lenny Bruce paid dearly for creating the world in which George Carlin and Louis C.K. could thrive:

Still, despite Bill Maher making the news this week, I was still on the fence about whether I would ever actually finish this post I began researching decades ago. However, a recent incident made my decision for me:

As I was Lyfting yesterday, I picked up 4 young men in Fort Lauderdale who were going some 35 miles to Sumerset Academy, a charter school down in Pembrook Pines. [Don’t get me started about Charter Schools, but clearly their parents felt they were getting a better education than anywhere else in the Public School System.] When these lads got in they did so with their music playing. I closed my music down, saying, “We got too much music happening.

“Crank it up,” I added. I let them plug in their bass heavy Bluetooth speaker and we drove down US-27 with the music cranked.

Now, I’m from Detroit and never heard the word “nigger” as many times as I did during this drive.

I couldn’t help but think that there are some people who do not consider the word toxic at all. There are some people who only consider it offensive when certain people use it. Here’s when I consider it offensive: When it’s used to offend.

On a related note, I told this story on my facebookery last week:

Had 2 Black gents in their 20s in the car when Al Jolson came on.

They were talking and showed no recognition whatsoever. So I interrupted and asked them, “Have either of you 2 gents heard of Al Jolson?”

After they both said “NO” I gave them an entire History Lesson on Blackface and Minstrel Shows. They were shocked.

They were more shocked to learn that there were Black men who blacked their faces so they could perform in Minstrel Shows.

Then I blew their minds when I explained that the original Whites who performed in blackface were imitating the Black folks’ Cake Walks, which in itself was a parody of White High Society that Black folks were lampooning.

It’s the vast circle of life.

Over the years I’ve bookmarked dozens of articles that avoid using the appropriate word, thereby softening these despicable sentiments. As I was in the process of proofreading this article, prior to hitting the PUBLISH button, I came across another ripped from the latest headlines:

Flint official resigns after
he’s caught on tape blaming
‘f*cking n*****s’ for water crisis

Oh, fer f*ck’s sake!

With the frightening emergence of NeoNazis (hiding behind the euphemism alt-right), we need RESIST the enabler in the White House, not get hung up over a word when used correctly.


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Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.