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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 15:45 GMT
Should racist word be rehabilitated?
As New York bans the use of the word nigger, the BBC's Kari Browne finds that when it comes to the small word with a long legacy, there are even divides within her own family.

Nigger, or "nigga" as most young people pronounce and spell it these days, has been banned by the largest city in America.

Chris Rock
Some US comedians like Chris Rock use the word in their routines

In a historic move, the New York City Council has publicly called on all residents, young and old, rich or poor, black, white, Asian and Latino to voluntarily stop using the word.

The ban is a symbolic one, a plea for the public to stand in solidarity to re-stigmatise the word.

For years the "n-word" has carried a stigma which is so strong that most American journalists and writers have chosen not only to refrain from saying it, but also to refrain from writing it.

Taboo word

I actually am a reformed n-word user.

As a product of a mixed-marriage - my mother is African American and my father white - I grew up in an extremely racially diverse community near San Francisco.

I used the n-word among friends, at school, singing along to songs. I used it carelessly without thinking much about it. It wasn't uncommon to hear my Filipino friends say to my Korean friends "what's up nigga".

Even among white kids, it was used ironically as a term of respect to one another... a way to fit in or identify with friends of other races.

Thinking of it now, our ancestors (both black and white) would be rolling in their graves as they listen to black kids greet their white friends with "what's up my nigga", or whites doing the same to their black friends.

Indeed it's become a part of our language, and sadly I don't remember feeling ashamed of using the word. Actually, that's not entirely true. I would never have said it around my parents or family. And perhaps that's the key.

I suppose the hope is to shame people out of using the word in a very public effort.

Origins

But are young people even listening?

Kari Browne
Kari Browne: A reformed n-word user
Words are multidimensional. And they mean different things to different people. But how can a word used to categorically dehumanise an entire race of people ever be flipped around to be used as a term of endearment?

Some African-Americans argue that by reclaiming the word, by owning it for themselves, the word can take on whatever meaning they ascribe to it.

In other words, they argue it is possible to reinvent the n-word and change its connotation.

Words can be painful and incredibly emotional. The n-word was born in the context of American slavery.

The first written documentation of it in print form was in 1786. It was used by white slave masters to label their black slaves.

Centuries later, it has enjoyed a rebirth among mostly young folks who have never known the context in which it was once spoken. And this is the problem.

We do not hear our elders saying: "Hello my n..., how are you today?"

My grandfather, raised in part by his grandmother - a freed slave - doesn't greet his friends with the word.

In fact I have never heard him, or anyone else in my family use it. So why did I?

Generational perhaps? And that is exactly what young people say today.

Different perceptions

My great-grandmother once asked me if I knew what the term "cracker" meant. Cracker is often used in a derogatory context to describe white people.

It too has had a rebirth among some whites who jokingly refer to themselves as "white trash" or "crackers".

New York
New York is the first city to ban the use of the divisive word

For all I knew, the term cracker referred to the white colour of saltine crackers we eat. So I always thought we called white people crackers because they were the colour of crackers. End of story.

Apparently not so. My great-grandmother told me that the term "cracker" was used by slaves to refer to their white slave owners as the man who "cracks the whip".

Crackers were the masters who beat their slaves.

Words carry weight.

Perhaps the gesture by the city council is to encourage people to be more considerate and sensitive to the legacy of the word.

So the debate continues. Though New Yorkers will not face fines or penalties for using the word, those on the New York City Council hope that people will consider carefully the context and connotation of the n-word and make an empowered decision to stop using it.


SEE ALSO
Racial slur banned in New York
01 Mar 07 |  Americas



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