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A Word's Place in the World This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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Editor's Note: Occasionally we get a submission that makes us wonder how it will be received by teens and teachers across the country. After consulting with our Teacher Advisory Board, we found overwhelming support for publishing this piece. We hope it sparks constructive, positive discussions in classrooms and personal reflection on this issue among our readers. Under different titles, this essay has been previously published on wiretap.org and tolerance.org.

About a year ago, one of my friends asked if it were cool if she called me her "nigga."

"No," I replied with a breath of disgust, intending that the conversation never come up again.

My friend, whom I suppose is Armenian, Lebanese and white, justified her question because she has a black relative. She characterizes herself as "semi-black" (whatever that means), especially when it is in her best interest. She told me that she'd also asked my friend Maranda (the other black girl in our grade) if this common derogatory term could be used as a term of endearment. Maranda believed the word couldn't mean any harm coming from a friend.

I knew my friend wouldn't use the word as an insult, but I still didn't approve of her referring to me that way. I understood that her interpretation of the word was intended as a term of endearment - as in comrade, homie, my sister - so why did her question bother me? Did I take it too literally?

Then the question of the "Protean N-word" arose. The "Protean N-word," a chapter in Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word by Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor and former Rhodes scholar, describes the word's purposes when used in different contexts. These contexts are used to distinguish the usage of the word nigger as a racist and derogatory term, as a historical word, or as a term of endearment.

Today, I realize that I've learned from that particular experience, and would probably handle it differently. My answer would remain the same, but I would want to explain why nigga, or nigger, is not a term of endearment.

The word is actually derived from the Latin for the color black - niger. It wasn't until 1837, that author Hosea Easton labeled the term as "employed to impose contempt upon [blacks] as an inferior race."

The N-word has its roots as a derogatory term and has always been used as a hurtful epithet.It is a term which has its roots in being a hateful word with the premise to belittle blacks, or degrade the African-American culture. It still imparts pain and is still an insult when applied to people of oppressed heritages. People sometimes forget that the labels "Niggers of Europe" and "Niggers of the Middle East" were used by Anglo-American supremacists in reference to people of Irish and Middle Eastern culture. Those labels also have been used to demean those cultures, invoking nothing but hatred and ignorance.

Unfortunately, in modern society, young people have abused and exploited the word. The reality is that blacks shouldn't use it when addressing their black friends in the presence of other races because it then becomes transformed into a friendly word, and other races begin to rationalize its use. A few months ago, I read that poor whites are increasingly referring to one another as niggers or"white nigga trash" to inflict one of the lowest of insults on each other. There is also controversy surrounding Hispanic and Latino students who call their black friends "niggaz" because they are minorities too and thus feel that it's okay.

After Jennifer Lopez recorded her hit "I'm Real," outrage surfaced in the African-American community about her reference. The black community suddenly forgot about all the black artists who use the word like it's the time of day. If the public criticized Ms. Lopez for her song's content then we should lament black entertainers' use of the word as well. Richard Pryor, a "Saturday Night Live" comedian from the ྂs,was featured in a skit entitled "That Nigger's Crazy," and Chris Rock, a popular comedian, opened with, "I love black people, but I hate Niggers." These black comedians have played on the N-word for their skits for years. Both have been subjected to harsh criticism, but hardly the same that whites have when using the word. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), a former Ku Klux Klan member, got into trouble in 2001 for saying that he had "seen a lot of white niggers in [his] time" (cnn.com). His comment raised eyebrows, but why did the public react differently? Or should they have acted differently? The difference hardly exists. The word has no place as an epithet in American society, or in the entertainment business. All people, regardless of race, should avoid using it. It is hateful, shameful and a disgrace to all when used unintelligently.

The questions still remain. Do blacks have the right to use the word? If I understand what it means, can I use it? Randall Kennedy's book documents many court cases involving the "troublesome word," including the controversies surrounding its use in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for high-school English classes.

Remember: the use of nigger is hurtful, destructive and racist; nonetheless, it is a word that has a place in our history and culture should not be censored when used for intellectual purposes.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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gail24 said...
Jul. 4, 2010 at 4:05 am
unsa mani ui .. wrong information !!
 
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