Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson want Black folks to stop using the word "nigger" because it conjures images of
self-denigration. Many folks across the races agree and have joined them in calling for a banning of the word.
The NAACP even went further and staged a mock funeral to bury the word in recent weeks.
The heat is definitely on since the Michael Richards and Don Imus incidents. The call to ban nigger and nigga is the fallout of these incidents.
Yet it is a troubling fallout. One that has unbalanced the weight of the word.
Makes me wonder if all of this postured noise is just a waste of time when it is directed at Blacks? I don't think it is entirely though. There is something to be said about creating positive Black images.
Still, I think that Al and Jesse and the new banning converts are simplifying a complex issue.
There is a distinctive history attached to either word. And that history, and its instrumentality, are being ignored in the current debate. See Randall Kennedy's "Nigger: the Strange Career of a Troublesome Word" for some context.
Nigger and nigga do not mean the same thing. A distinction that is seemingly lost on Al and Jesse. What is not lost is the opportunism and self-promotion heaped in the formulation and staging of this narrow debate.
A more nuanced consideration of the debate around these words must include some key questions. For example: Who owns the word "nigger" in American race relations?; Second, is the meaning of the word different when used by whites, Blacks, and Others; Third, is there a textual difference in the meaning of the re-appropriated word and its derivative, nigga; And finally, can a word like nigger ever really be banned in a racist nation-state?
When I think through these questions, I am reminded that W.E.B DuBois was not concerned about the naming game. He could care less that Blacks were referred to as Africans originally, and then colored, then Negro, then Black, then Afro-American, back to Black, and in 1986 Jesse said African American best described Black life in America.
For DuBois it was the "thing" that counted. That "thing" was and is racism. DuBois realized that the naming game was tied to the politics of race.
I want to develop these thoughts further and invite comments from readers.
But, even as I work through my thinking this breaking story brings to fore some of my reservations about grandstanding on names and, thereby, forgoing the larger complexity of race and racism. CBS/AP report that a Black woman was held captive and tortured for a week by six white assailants.
The young Black woman (20) met one of the abductors online. She was then apparently lured into captivity where they sexually abused her and stabbed her four times.
This horrific incident may be prosecuted as a hate crime because the abductors called the women the "N-word every time they stabbed her", according to the victim's mother, Carmen Williams.
Is the word "nigger", as used by these six abductors, the same as when it is used by comedian Eddie Griffin or Black rappers?
Are Al and Jesse and the banning bandwagon not victimizing Blacks? Whites obviously use the word in distinct cultural, political, and historical contexts. And in the case above, the outcome for the victim was very different than an off-color joke by Eddie Griffin.
The real battlefield, it seems to me, lies not in the grandstanding about words and images. This is a futile strategy that is really about the madness of liberal multiculturalism. In a very distinct way, the debate is brought on by the artificial balancing of liberal multiculturalism and its interests in leveling oppressions.
This strategy undermines a real advance on the structural sensibilities of racism. It says that Blacks are equally responsible for the horrific history that is attached to the word nigger. Furthermore, it robs Blacks of the power to reassign meaning to hurtful and derogatory words.
The latter is a revolutionary process. It is about seizing power. Renaming is a political strategy toward liberation that cannot just be cast aside.
The real struggle, in my view, would know this and move to secure structural changes to the system that produced the word. If the structure is left alone the racist rot will continue no matter what word games are played.
And in this sense, DuBois was right. It is the "thing" that counts. And the "thing" now is that African American still means "nigger" to more folks than Al and Jesse can count together on any given day.
But we should hardly expect them to call for the banning of the term/name African American any time soon.