I’ve recently found myself the target of accusations of racism. These accusations weren’t the result of me doing or saying anything racist, but rather because I said that simply saying the “n-word” isn’t necessarily racist, and that it really depends on the context. I knew people would disagree with me, but I certainly didn’t anticipate the intense hostility and expletive-filled screaming that ensued. They went all-out Tana Mongeau on me. I now have three girls on my floor that no longer want to come into my suite because they are “uncomfortable” around me, and are going around telling people (including my black suitemate) that I am a racist. However, that night also inspired me to write this, so that’s a plus I guess. Regardless of the accusations and buzzwords that are thrown at me, I will continue to speak my mind and stand up for others that are unfairly being labeled racists, sexists, homophobes, and so on. I’m not a fan of trigger warnings, but I need to make this clear – I will be using words that are considered offensive in certain contexts. However, the context I will be using them in is to support my argument and provide examples, not to demean or insult anyone.
Words are not inherently offensive. Words mean nothing without context around them. The context is what really determines what that word means. For example, there is a tremendous difference between calling a woman a bitch, and saying that something was “a bitch” to do. In the first scenario, “bitch” is being used as a derogatory and sexist word to put down a woman. In the second scenario, “bitch” is being used as a word to describe how annoying or difficult the task was to complete. The word is the same, but the context changes the meaning of it completely. This principle applies to every word in the dictionary, including the word “nigger.”
Calling a black person a “nigger” is a horrible thing to do, and the person who said it is obviously a racist, and deserves to be labeled as such. There are certain scenarios, however, where saying the word is not racist. One of those scenarios that I should start with right of the bat is the way I am using it in this opinion piece. I am not using “nigger” as an insult or a slur, but rather as an example. There is a clear difference between the way that I am using the word, and the way that slave owners in the 1800s used the word.
Another scenario where it is not bigoted to use offensive words and slurs is when you are quoting someone else, such as reading from a book or singing along to a song. Calling someone a racist for singing along to Kanye West is idiotic, because they aren’t even that person’s words. They are simply repeating the work of an artist or author.
I remember sitting in class in 9th grade, reading along as one student read Of Mice and Men aloud. The student who was reading approached the part where they start talking about Crooks, and paused. He thought for a second, then read it exactly as it was written – “Ya see the stable buck’s a nigger.” Everyone stared at him, in disbelief that he had actually said the “n-word.” The word spread fast of what he had said, and how he was a racist because of it. Not only is he not a racist, but he should have been applauded for actually reading the book how it was written. Of Mice and Men was written in the 1930s, when referring to black people as “niggers” was pretty common. That sentiment is reflected by the language used in the novel. By skipping over or censoring the word when reading, you are not only being ignorant to history, you are also altering the dynamic between the characters. Everyone referring to Crook as “just a nigger” is extremely important in building not only Crooks’ character, but also the characters of everyone that treats him that way. Reading books and historical documents as they are written is crucial to understanding them, and calling someone a racist or another buzzword for doing so is beyond idiotic.
The nature of a word is based almost entirely on the context it is used in, not on the word itself. Using the word “nigger” doesn’t automatically make someone a racist, using the word “bitch” doesn’t automatically make someone a sexist, and using the word “faggot” doesn’t automatically make someone a homophobe. While these words definitely can be offensive, and should probably be avoided if possible, it is important to analyze the context they are used in before accusing someone of bigotry or hate speech.
Image from here