by Douglas Wright
Growing up, the word "nigger" was the worst possible utterance to
escape a kid's lips. It was up there with getting caught smoking or
reading a Playboy: a serious moral offense for which you'd be subjected
to a tag-team lecture by Mom and Dad. Blood rushed to your face, and you
hung your head in shame. Even today, as a budding White nationalist, I
blanch at the use of the word. Unless, of course, I'm muttering it
under my own breath after witnessing some particularly niggerish behavior
by, well, niggers.
Yet the word retains power -- and not the "power of reclamation" liberal
academics use to refer to the rapper's use of "nigger." I mean the power
to hurt. The power to sting, slice and slash, right into the innards of
a black, no matter the age, sex or size of the specimen. A black Harvard
Law School professor named Randall Kennedy has just published a book
titled Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word that purports
to examine just these phenomena. I haven't read the book, but after
hearing him interviewed on NPR and reading a few reviews, I get the basic
idea: it's bad if White people say it and good if black people say it,
so long as it's all in good fun. Well, whatever. Since I doubt Randall
Kennedy shares my views on black people, I doubt if he got to the heart
of why "nigger" is indeed such a troublesome word.
Here's why "nigger" hurts so much: Because it's true. Just say it out
loud. The word 'nigger' pops with onomatopoeic accuracy: the negative
sneer of the 'neh,' the rubbery, bouncing stupidity of the 'gg,' the
disapproving droop of the 'er.' It conjures an image of big-lipped,
big-toothed, frightening-looking black man, bopping threateningly along,
shooting his eyes here and there, on the lookout both for opportunities
to make trouble and avoid detection.
You know him, because you've seen him. He's a nigger. An
honest-to-God, wild-eyed bull nigger. Filthy, ugly and dangerous. His
limbs fly about, and he moves with sudden and unsettling jerks. His
noises are spastic and threatening -- ape-like hoots, grunts and growls.
"Nigga!" he shouts to his fellow niggers. "Muthafucka! Bitch!
Muthafucka Bitch Nigga! Get the fuck out my face, Nigga Muthafucka
Bitch-Ass Nigga! Sheeeeaaat, Nigga." The Whites around are all made
uncomfortable; they avoid eye contact lest they hear that fearsome
bellow: "What the fuck you lookin' at, White-ass muthafucka?" Hell,
you don't have to be a rip-roarin' racist like me to share this
discomfort. Listen to the words of one Felicia Lee, a columnist for the
New York Times:
The three young black men were on a crowded No. 2 train headed
uptown, wearing the compulsory pants that threatened to drop to their
ankles. They lost no time in putting on a show that runs frequently,
often greeting subway riders between 2 and 4 p.m. as schools let out. The
young men traded a blizzard of "nigger" this and "nigger" that,
complemented by vulgar references to women, sexual acts and gays.
Commuters of all colors cringed and avoided eye contact.
Of course, aversion to this unseemly black behavior must be wrapped in
thick blankets of concern for other oppressed groups, lest Lee be tagged
a racist. But let's just out with it: 'Nigger' may be an ugly word, but
that only stands to reason. Niggers are ugly. Maybe the word needs
unsheathing. The more blacks insist on invading our schools, our
communities and our way of life, all based on the insistence that they're
just dark-skinned White people, they may need to be told: "You're not
wanted here because you're a nigger! Got it? Now get out!" As Oliver
Wendell Holmes once said, I'm tired of worshiping at the Shrine of the
The terms of insult for Whites, by contrast, don't cut so well.
"Honky" just sounds silly; when Whites hear it, they laugh, recalling
George Jefferson from "The Jeffersons." Same for "cracker," "white
devil," or any of the others. The fact is that a mostly-quality, secure
people aren't offended by terms of insult for them dreamed up by their
But 'nigger' hurts. Because blacks are in fact often stupid,
irresponsible and threatening, the very attributes conjured by the word.
And they seem to know it. Words hurt, but the ones that hurt worst are
the ones that are true.