Thursday, July 2, 2020 - The N-Word - Sean Crain
I know quite a few people who wonder what the big deal is revolving around casual usage of the n-word by white people. I have never really had a proper answer to it, so I've just sat back and started to think about it, and I remembered past things I have read about the topic as I did.
Just recently I was asked why a common epithet for white people generally doesn't offend us when it's used. I've had that in the back of my mind for a couple days, and in the last hour or so (statement was written at about 4:00 AM), I've been really focused on it. This is what I've processed.
When someone uses the word "cracker", just as an example, why are most whites generally not offended? If it were just about pejorative insults, then it should be just as offensive as the n-word. However, the reason it doesn't hit us as hard is the fact that few of us actually know what it means, and because of that, it carries little weight.
The origin of the word is not as clearly defined as the n-word's is. In the Elizabethan era, Middle English versions of the word were used to describe braggarts and those who liked to tell jokes. About 200 years later, the word referred to former white convicts in the pre-independence British America. By the 1850s, the word referred to slaveowners who whipped slaves.
I was unaware of the meaning of the term because I had no reason to look it up. That word isn't part of most whites' vernacular, and because of that, it carries little weight with us. I'm sure many white people don't actually know what the word means, because I know I certainly didn't.
But the history of the n-word is clearly defined, and carries a lot of baggage. The word itself is a purposeful mispronounciation of "negro," which was the proper term used for blacks during the days of slavery and Jim Crow. I don't know if the black community considers the word "negro" to be overtly offensive or just outdated, as it was a proper term and is also the word for the color black in Spanish, but it certainly could be viewed that way.
But the slur status of its mispronounced counterpart is unquestionable. That word was used explicity by whites to describe blacks as less than human, and they used it that way for centuries. The word was said to mean "a dirty, uncivilized, uncontrollable animal", and given the stereotypical view of Africans as being primal brutes, it's clear that it was not a friendly or welcoming term.
The actions associated with that word carry a weight that a word like cracker doesn't. White people weren't forcefully abducted from their home continent during a 400 year commercial operation and called crackers. They weren't forced into involuntary servitude and called crackers. They weren't treated as second class citizens with no financial standing and called crackers. They weren't hunted down and terrorized by members of supremacist organizations and called crackers. They didn't have the state turn the hoses on them just because they were protesting for basic equality before the law and called crackers. They weren't labeled superpredators by a state looking to throw as many people in prison as possible for private profits and called crackers. They aren't being indiscriminately killed by law enforcement and called crackers.
Context is huge. There is a reason why certain slurs are more offensive than others. Some don't have defined meanings or have very loosely defined ones. The n-word is the single most defined racial epithet that exists.
There is an argument to be made over the social acceptability of the n-word within the black community, and there is a debate over it. I am not a member of that community, and the internal social acceptability of what is a slur when used externally is a matter for them, but what should be fundamentally clear is that non-blacks, especially including whites, should not use that word.
Before I published this statement, I contacted four people about it. I have published their responses.
Cameron is a high school friend of mine who I had several classes with over the years, and I have had some short political comments with him on different platforms. As he is a member of the black community, he is one of two people I contact for review and input whenever I have a statement to release about a race-related topic. Here's what he had to say.
Sean: Cameron, forgive me for sending something this early, and also forgive me if I don't respond until the afternoon. I just wrote down some thoughts I had, and before I decide to make this public, I'd like you to look at this and see if you think I should go ahead with it.
I sent him screenshots of the original draft of the statement.
Cameron: I 100% agree. You took all the words out of my mouth. I just wish people would realize that word carries weight when they say it whether they mean it as a slur or not. This is really good, Sean. I'm proud of and super happy that you speak up about this kind of stuff. Now, I do think you could get some backlash from the white people who use this word regularly, but this is something they need to hear whether they like it or not. I appreciate you running all of that by me!
Sean: Thanks man.
Cameron: Yes sir! Thank you!
Sean: I did some research because I sent this to Tremere as well, and he told me that he's heard that the word "cracker" actually references slaveowners and whips. I was completely unaware of that until now, and I get the feeling most whites don't know that.
Cameron: Yeah, that's pretty unheard of for most people.
Tremere is a friend of mine who attended high school and college with me. As a white man, I don't have the experience to truly explain life in the black community, but Tremere certainly does, and whenever I publish a statement commentating on a race-related issue, he is one of two people I immediately turn to for input. Here's what he had to say.
Sean: Tremere, forgive me for sending something this early, and also forgive me if I don't respond until the afternoon. I just wrote down some thoughts I had, and before I decide to make this public, I'd like you to look at this and see if you think I should go ahead with it.
I sent him screenshots of the original draft of the statement.
Tremere: You're good man, no worries. From my knowledge of the slurs, they both have very obscure histories. For example, I believe that "cracker" was coined from the past of slaveowners known as "whip crackers", though the saltine would seem coincidental. Same with "nigger" with "negro". We know that English was picked up from the Spanish language. I feel that like most words, the definition of "nigger" has fluctuated after it became a regular saying in America.
Tremere: What I've heard about word "nigger" is that was that the original meaning was a dirty, uncivilized, uncontrollable animal. That could be offensive to anyone, but throughout world history the African race has always been seen as primal and barbaric, causing it to have more weight to the black community of course.
Tremere: A lot of people tend not to agree, but there are instances where the term was said without African presence. For example,the climax of the movie Running Scared featuring Paul Walker, when the antagonist became irritated, he screamed "fucking nigger" when there were no Africans in the scene.
Tremere: Finally, for the use of "nigga," I see a big piece of hypocrisy with its usage, but I understand. I don't care as much about who says it, I care about whether they truly know the history of the word. I believe the reason why the black community is angered by the use from other races is that they still associate it with anyone of African descent even though that was never the case.
Tremere: That's pretty much my knowledge and opinion over the topic. I hope I've ordered and clarified my points well enough.
Sean: Thanks for the input. I was completely unaware of the origin of the word cracker, but then again, I get the impression a big chunk of whites probably don't even know that, which partly explains why it carries little weight.
The person who made this response requested anonymity, but they are a person of color.
I sent them screenshots of the original draft.
Anonymous: Actually, the word cracker came from the sound of the whip when white folk would whip their slaves, not from an actual saltine cracker, but other than that I think it's very well worded and very educational.
Anonymous: You might get some pushback from people saying, "Well, white people were enslaved too," but I don't think that's relevant [considering that white slavery was thousands of years ago], but either way I think it's really good. It shows why the word is inappropriate and why certain people shouldn't use it. I also like that you pointed out that the word should be left to blacks at the end since its usage is against them. Whether and how they use it is up to them and their communities. It's very well thought out, Sean.
Sean: I was unaware of the origin of the word, but I will update the post accordingly.
Julia is a friend I've known since third grade, and she was in the same AP Government class I was in. Like me, she is a very political person, and I usually have her read statements before they're published. She is white, so I delayed asking her for usual input until the other three had given me theirs.
Sean: I have a new statement that I'm preparing for publication, and I'm getting input from Tremere and Cameron about it. I'll let you see it ahead of time as well:
I sent her screenshots of the revised draft of the statement.
Julia: I'd go further and say non-black people of color shouldn't use it either. Black people have every right to use it, because an effort has been made in the African American community to reclaim the word as their own. It's a way to take back the power the word has.
Sean: I started thinking about that in a wider capacity after I wrote the initial statement this morning. Racial epithets should belong to the group who the epithet was meant to offend. They should have control over the social meaning of that word.