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 Great Nigger.

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 haters.

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.


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