Former Seinfeld star Michael Richards quickly bowed to public pressure and apologized for his boneheaded N word laced diatribe against black customers who allegedly heckled him during his appearance at the Laugh Factory. But Richards was a soft target. He's a white man that sprinted way over the line of racial etiquette. It was a no brainer that blacks would rage against him. They have done the same against the legion of other white celebrities, politicians and public figures that have gotten caught with their racial pants hanging down. When the predictable firestorm hits, they back peddle fast, do their mea culpas and declare they're not racist.
The same can't be said for the legion of black comedians and rappers that have virtually canonized the word. They sprinkle the word throughout their rap lyrics and comedy lines, and black writers, and filmmakers go through lengthy gyrations to justify using the word. During a panel discussion at the Summer Television Critics Association tour in 2005, Aaron McGruder, creator of the popular comic strip, Boondocks, defiantly told the audience that he'd use the N' word as much as he pleased in his comic strip and in his series on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. If folks didn't like it, well tough.
McGruder and N word users and apologists serve up the lame rationale that the more a black person uses the word, the less offensive it becomes. They claim that they are cleansing the word of its negative connotations so that racists can no longer use it to hurt blacks. Comedian, turned activist, Dick Gregory had the same idea some years ago when he titled his autobiography, Nigger. Black writer, Robert DeCoy also tried to apply the same racial shock therapy to whites when he titled his novel, The Nigger Bible.
The black N word apologists tick off an endless storehouse of defenses to justify use of the word. They claim that that it is a term of endearingly or affectionately. They say to each other, "You're my nigger if you don't get no bigger." Or, "that nigger sure is something." Others use it in anger or disdain, "Nigger you sure got an attitude." Or, "A nigger ain't s...." Still, others are defiant. They say they don't care what a white person calls them since words can't harm them.
They forget, ignore or distort one thing. Words are not value neutral. They express concepts and ideas. Often, words reflect society's standards. If color-phobia is a deep-rooted standard in American life, then a word, as emotionally charged as nigger, will always reinforce and perpetuate stereotypes. It can't be sanitized, cleansed, inverted, or redeemed as a culturally liberating word. Nigger can't and shouldn't be made acceptable, no matter whose mouth it comes out of or what excuse is tossed out for using it.
There are still dozens of daily examples where whites (and other non-blacks) taunt, and harass blacks by calling them nigger, spray paint the word on their homes, businesses, churches, physically assault and even murder blacks. In the FBI's annual count of hate crimes in America, blacks still make up the overwhelming majority of victims.
The N word reigns supreme at the top of the stack as the favorite racial epithet hurled at blacks during these crimes. Even when the word isn't used, the sentiment is that blacks are still fair game too be abused and dehumanized, and the N word reinforces that belief. The word nigger is and will always have, grotesque, and deadly meaning to them. And, even if some blacks do occasionally go off the deep end and wrongly harangue whites for using the word, maybe that's because nigger, pricks agonizing historical and social sores.
In all fairness, a handful of black activists have waged war against the N word. There's a website that hawks T shirts, DVDs and exhorts blacks, especially young blacks, to solemnly pledge not to use the word or patronize anyone who puts out products that use the word. Presumably that's aimed at those rappers and writers that have turned the N word into a lucrative growth industry.
But they have been the exception. Blacks have been more than willing to give other blacks that use the word a pass. The indulgence sends the subtle signal that the word is hardly the earth-shattering, illegitimate word that black and white N word opponents brand it.
Richards gave no public hint before his profane outburst that he was a closet bigot who routinely used the word in reference to blacks. But he didn't have too. The obsessive use of and the tortured defense of the word by so many blacks gave Richards the license to use the word without any thought that there'd be any blow back for doing it. He was terribly wrong and got publicly called out for it. The blacks that use and defend that word should be called out too. Who's willing to do that?
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).