The Sun reported that a white “Hip-Hop fan” was cleared of using racist language when he called a black man the n-word.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the man who used this term, Christopher Jones, fails to acknowledge the history and pain associated with the word. As far as he is concerned he meant no offence. The judge agreed, and that’s the end of it.
Well not quite. White folk protesting they cannot use a word which some Black youth use to refer to themselves is a chestnut older than the oldest chestnut tree. The kind of tree Black people used to be strung up on while the word echoed in their ears. It was the last word Stephen Lawrence heard as he was stabbed by the racist gang in Eltham.
Mr Jones claims he was only using it as “a term of endearment” while referencing rap culture. A culture where it is used as a full stop, comma or exclamation mark rather than a term of endearment. Brotha is a term of endearment. Elder, uncle, take your pick. But the n-word? I don’t think so.
I’ve seen some white people argue that they should be able to use the word because Black people do. The operative word here is ‘seen’. Yes, I’ve heard them too but the body language is often a giveaway. In contrast with their carefully-reasoned arguments, the body language says: ‘A-ha, I’ve got you there! How you gonna get out of that one, boy?’
They know what the response is; it’s a word steeped in racism going back to the days of enslavement. But they also know that this line can sometimes sound ‘politically correct’ and out of touch with many in the Black community who are not so political or historical about the word and will tolerate it in certain circumstances. Perhaps that is why the likes of Rev Al Sharpton have not been completely successful in eradicating the word from Hip-Hop and street language. We’re not entirely ready to let it go.
It could be argued that the fight-back against this term has not been rooted enough in knowledge of the way the word has been deliberately corrupted by the white man. The word Niger means King in Ibo, Negger means Golden One and Nega Negast means King of Kings in ancient Kemet.
Meanwhile n***** was a word that conveyed that you were nothing no matter what you had attained. Highest black person not equal to lowest white person. You were still a n*****.
It iss a word that echoes through the generations. The more we are connected to our past, our parents past, and the ancestors, the more it hurts.
I’ve always believed that there is no case for reclaiming something that was not ours to begin with. There are plenty of other words to ‘reclaim’ like Negast.
Much rather reclaim something that brings with it pride in the African soul than one that still carries the venom of racists and the rattle of the chains of enslavement and oppression. A word synonymous with sticks, stones, ropes, knives and chains.
Besides, why go ‘around’ the word by trying to reclaim it when we should have the confidence to cut through it with a challenge that says the n-word is unacceptable in any circumstances, whether it ends with an ‘er’ or an ‘a’.
Many love it when Bob Marley sings ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery’ but it’s one thing loving it, quite another to practice it.
Mr Jones, from Stoke-on-Trent, certainly has no right to disregard the history of the n-word simply because he claims he has Black friends. No right to keep a word so painful in circulation when it hurts his Black friends’ families and community. He has his cheap ‘victory’, but is also diminished by it.
Certainly any white person who is offended by being called a racist should ask themselves how they feel about the use of the n-word which not just offends many Black people but also their ancestry, culture and very being.
In some ways Mr Jones appears to be caught in a time-warp. Yes the word is still in use today. But it was popularised in Hip-Hop culture in the 80’s and used even by otherwise socially-conscious artists. As the genre transcended races – winning legions of white fans – so too many white fans, including Gwyneth Paltrow, feel some kind of licence to use the word.
Some Black Hip-Hop artists have admitted they are personally conflicted by the word, often swayed by fashion or what is expected of them to be successful. Yet any conflicts white people have are likely to have are different: ‘They say it, I want to say it too… shall I? Okay, let’s go for it! N*****! Wow, that felt good! Let me say it louder!’
Clearly being a fan of Hip-Hop is not a get-out clause. Mods were into two-tone and Ska but that did not stop them attacking Black youth in the street.
Hip-Hop is a music that has its’ origins in the beats and call-and-return vocals of Africa where there were no n*****s, just people who were proud of who they were, great civilisations, griots, kings, queens and pharaohs.
Ultimately it is a word that sets the path to race equality back centuries, or at the very least takes the African Diaspora on an unnecessary detour.
For all the claims of reclaiming, we have not witnessed the transformation of the term into something positive but rather we are seeing the defence of a word that is variously either intensely negative or is meaningless. It is certainly no longer edgy, rebellious, ironic or clever, if it ever was.
If anyone believed using the n-word was the equivalent of reclaiming the word ‘black’ surely we now know that this has failed. In this context the Stoke court decision freezes in time a word that I believe is slowly on its’ way out.
In an age when many other terms of abuse have faded from language we cannot and should not seek to preserve in formaldehyde this word.
Far from being a term of endearment, it is a term of the past. A past that is for some deeply offensive and painful for many, simply pointless for others.
Now that the arguments about ‘rehabilitating’ the word have lost all force the last thing we need today is an attempt by the law to legitimise it.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway
See also: A Comedy of Errors