Now that we’ve handled formalities, a riddle: what do the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) and the news-making principal of a Brampton high school have in common? Whether intentionally or through ignorance, both parties have advanced the notion that we can discuss racism without actually referencing racist language. I disagree, and if you chose to keep reading this piece after its opening word, perhaps you do too. Words take on whatever power we give them, and our reluctance to use contentious language often sharpens its potential to do harm.
Last week the principal of a Brampton school decided to remove Harper Lee’s celebrated novel To Kill a Mockingbird from the reading list for his school’s grade 10 students after receiving a complaint from one parent, allegedly about the word nigger. Many major publications and broadcasters have lined up to criticize the principal and the complaining parent, yet most of them refuse to print it or utter the word they claim to defend. It reminds me of Tom Robinson, the black man in the story accused of raping a white woman. No lawyer in the town wants to defend him for fear of being labeled a “nigger lover.”
Given that removing one word or expression from its context qualifies as a legitimate complaint in this case, almost any word could be deemed offensive. The idea that nigger isn’t just any word still has its limitations – would a complaint about the appearance of nigger in a school dictionary, for example, be met with equal credibility? The implication is that the specific use of nigger in the novel is cause for concern.
It is possible this complaining parent has never actually read or heard of To Kill a Mockingbird, a narrative that critiques racism, stereotyping and systemic discrimination in the United States during the 1950s. The principal must certainly be familiar with the book and its distinction of the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Debates about whether To Kill a Mockingbird deserves its critical acclaim or whether it is an essential resource for students are secondary. This is about a word that continues to incite such singular fear and division in our society.
As long as I have known it, I have recognized nigger as the most powerful word in the English language. A boy in my elementary school who spewed this insult at me did so under his breath, aware that it was too dangerous a word to be overheard. My first copy of The Adventures of Huck Finn contained a foreword detailing the controversy Mark Twain ignited by employing nigger 215 times in his novel. Two years ago, the NAACP organized a mock funeral for the “N-word” in Detroit. Although the outside of the casket contained only a derivation of nigger, the NAACP’s press release confirmed the deceased was indeed inside the coffin. Kwame Kilpatrick, then mayor of Detroit, declared, “Die N-word, and we don’t want to see you ’round here no more.” (In fairness to Kilpatrick, using the actual word in that context would have been a poor PR move.)
It isn’t too late to launch an investigation to determine which poor member of the NAACP actually had to write nigger in that coffin. The organization’s merciless leaders must have forced a low-ranking member to do it, since they could never sully themselves. Maybe they hastily tossed in copies of Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker and Toni Morrison‘s The Bluest Eye. Or perhaps they secretly contracted out the dirty deed to a local rapper who uses it all the time anyway. (Not Eminem, though – the Detroit native has been quoted as saying the N-word is not a word he chooses to F-word with.)
In any case, the word is far from dead. The NAACP funeral denotes an unhealthy obsession with nigger, a term that has likely crossed over to the realm of the undead, unaffected by our every mortal attempt to banish it to language hell. The problem with allowing words which make us uncomfortable to be isolated, decontextualized and demonized is that we also end up avoiding words we really need. One casualty of this timidity is the word racism. Despite frequent instances of racism in our public institutions and mainstream media, we are at best suspicious of the idea of racism as a cultural reality. Racism, too, has become a bad word, one we’d rather deny that discuss.
When U.S. President Barack Obama was campaigning against Senator John McCain, he never once used the word racism to describe claims that he was a “secret Muslim” or an associate of terrorists, even though the implications were clear. More recently, when a Boston police officer arrested a black Harvard professor in his own home after suspicions the professor had broken in, Obama weighed in but again refrained from referencing racism or racial profiling. He spoke instead of “troubling aspects of our society” and “teachable moments.”
Obama’s opponents are eager for him to drop the “R-Word,” which would allow them to counter that he has played the “race card,” a term that has become household in American politics as steadily as racism has become taboo. Even blatantly racist claims, such as the notion that Barack Obama is not an American citizen, are framed in the false dichotomy of “racism vs. race card.” Media outlets rarely qualify events as racist; they prefer to speculate about whether or not a given event was or was not racist, as if the word has no accepted meaning or application. Like the word nigger, we trivialize racism as something that may no longer be relevant in modern public debate.
Obama’s political motivations for avoiding the word racism are obvious enough. But Obama cannot lead an honest social debate about racism because his current position prevents him from calling a spade…well, you get it.
Our attempts to purge ourselves of ideas and words, no matter how undesirable, lend them a supernatural power they do not deserve. When words become unspeakable – when we lose any ability to detach ourselves from our fears through literature, art, music, satire, and journalism – we engage in denial instead of engaging our social problems. The conviction that words like nigger or racist are among the worst in our language is no excuse to stop using them or to stop exploring the ideas that activate them.
We cannot address our challenges by plugging our ears, humming a tune or banning a book. What we can do is speak and listen without shutting down dialogue, challenge ourselves about words and perspectives that make us uncomfortable, ask more questions, take more deep breaths. The students who are being shielded from Mockingbird are 14 and 15 years old. I’d be stunned if any of them have never heard the word nigger. It’s up to us whether they also learn what it means, where it comes from and how it affects our culture.
Although most people are uncomfortable with nigger, they are generally more comfortable when it comes from a black speaker or writer; it’s a lasting function of the word’s history. However, one cannot own a word any more than one can own a person. So long as we refrain from using language to degrade ourselves and others, we are all entitled to it. Harper Lee is a white woman from Alabama who had the courage to write what she experienced. Nearly 50 years after its publication, To Kill a Mockingbird contains lessons which are – to a word – still worth the challenges necessary to acquire them.