Kennedy's core purpose in producing "Nigger" was to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet "nigger"
July 29, 2002 2:19 PM   Subscribe

Kennedy's core purpose in producing "Nigger" was to assist White Americans in feeling comfortable with using the epithet "nigger" Dr. Martin Kilson, the first black tenured professor at Harvard, responds to Randall Kennedy's controversial book on "the N-word".
posted by McBain (36 comments total)
 
Not sure how I feel about this. He seems more interested in how certian idiots misunderstood the Kennedy's book than with the text itself.
posted by McBain at 2:20 PM on July 29, 2002


I have to ask: why is it ok for black folks to bandy the word about as frequently as I blather words like "sex" and "chocolate" when it is clearly not ok for white folks (or people of any other race) to use it?
posted by insomnyuk at 2:23 PM on July 29, 2002


Dr. Martin Kilson, a Harvard research professor of political science, was the first African American to be granted full tenure at the college, in 1968. He retired from Harvard's Department of Government three years ago, and is now completing 22 years of work on the two-volume study, "The Making of Black Intellectuals," to be published next year.

Bet it doesn't sell as good as "Nigger."
posted by ColdChef at 2:26 PM on July 29, 2002


As a black comedian one astutely observed, us white folks lost the privilege to use it because we abused it.
posted by donkeyschlong at 2:27 PM on July 29, 2002


I have to ask: why is it ok for black folks to bandy the word about as frequently as I blather words like "sex" and "chocolate" when it is clearly not ok for white folks (or people of any other race) to use it?

Simple. It's not. Just because there are examples (numerous examples, unfortunately) of black folks who use the n-word, doesn't make it appropriate. Their use of the word is as offensive as yours. I don't buy the whole "recapturing the word as empowerment" bit, either.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:30 PM on July 29, 2002


monju_bosatsu, tell that to the television censors and millions of people who would call a white person rascist if she said nigger in public. I don't buy the 'nigga' is a different word than 'nigger' argument. This is a huge double-standard, there are very few, if any, other minorities who use their own racial epithets for amusement.

If they want others to stop saying it and add more of a social stigma to it, then they should stop saying it themselves.
posted by skallas at 2:38 PM on July 29, 2002


monju_bosatsu, i disagree. Although there's a movement to reclaim words, there's also a recognition of ownership of statements. When a queer person makes jokes about gay culture, it sounds quite different than when coming from a straight person. Why? Because there's a recognition that the person is placing themselves within the dialogue, mocking themselves and their community. When outsiders make remarks that are "jokes" or potentially offensive, it has a different tone. Nigger is definitely a heavy-handed word, but when it comes out the mouth of someone who might be described as such, they're aware of the impact of such a word on them, twisting it around to express it. Thus, they're owning the word, not trying to judge someone from the outside. It's a community thing.
posted by zegooober at 2:38 PM on July 29, 2002


It's just a matter of context. Using "nigger" or "fag" as an insult serves a different purpose then when a black person or gay man uses the word themselves as a show of community. If you are part of a particular group that has had such words negatively attributed to them by society, it is one way to stand up or fight back is to re-define these words.

I've used the word "wetback" myself to take the sting away, to make the word powerless, to acknowledge the way greater society sometimes views people like me and to make fun of that attitude. It is empowering, even if it is, at the end, just another word.
posted by lychee at 2:48 PM on July 29, 2002


Thus, they're owning the word, not trying to judge someone from the outside. It's a community thing.

You can't "own" a word. The statements you make have an impact because of the meaning you ascribe to them and because of the meaning ascribed to them by observers. Sure, I can claim that I meant to use an offensive word as part of a community, and in a harmless self-deprecating manner, but words only have a certain range of reasonable meaning. In my opinion, the n-word is one where the range of reasonable meaning comes nowhere near a level sufficient to allow it into casual conversation, no matter who uses it.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 2:50 PM on July 29, 2002


One should not use the word, "n*gger" as it is rude and offensive.

One can, however, use the word "nigga" in conversation as this implies a friendly gesture and brotherhood.
posted by wackybrit at 2:51 PM on July 29, 2002


If they want others to stop saying it and add more of a social stigma to it, then they should stop saying it themselves.

I keep trying to bring this up at the meeting, but nobody wants to listen. OH WAIT... black people aren't one entire monolithic groupthink! Some of us think the word is disgusting and reprehensible, but there's not a whole lot I can do against some ill informed ding-bat that uses it besides do as my grandfather says: "treat them with the contempt that they deserve".
posted by owillis at 2:53 PM on July 29, 2002


they're aware of the impact of such a word on them, twisting it around to express it.

No, I think they're saying it because Nas and Ja Rule say it. I doubt 12 year old boys think about post structuralist implications of the reappropriation of racial language by the disenfranchised...
posted by evanizer at 2:54 PM on July 29, 2002


"Thus, they're owning the word, not trying to judge someone from the outside. It's a community thing."

zegoober: that's great, but it shuts the door to the black community in my, and every non-black person's face.

I have a diverse group of friends from many communities, even though I'm a straight, non-religious white male. With my Jewish friends, I am comfortable poking fun at Jewish stereotypes, like greed, beards, or big noses. With my queer friends I can say "what a fag," or "gay as ice-skating" and get plenty of laughs. This is because I have personal bonds with these people, and they know that I include them in MY community, even though I may be straight and they gay, or atheist and they religious.

I have never, ever used the word "nigger" in front of my black friends, because I have never, ever been comfortable doing so, even when I think it's rather funny/appropriate.

In fact, I got a severe tongue-lashing from several friends for quoting the following Chris Rock joke, which I think is so hilarious that I will have to repeat it:

A black man and bigfoot are walking down a street in Boulder, Colorado. A little boy walking with his mother gasps and says:
"Look mommy! A nigger
posted by zekinskia at 2:56 PM on July 29, 2002


Back to the topic of the post, I linked to this review of the book in another thread, and it includes some interesting links at the bottom (1,2).

I think Kilson is spreading the kind of alarmism which Kennedy is decrying in his book.

I don't have any links handy, but I heard of a story where a book was banned for using the n-word, even though the book was clearly anti-racist (it may have been authored by Southern writer Flannery O'Connor, if memory serves). Obvoiusly, its a word that should not be banned by press outlets (that's silly), but it should be carefully used in the proper context, like in Huckleberry Finn.

No, I think they're saying it because Nas and Ja Rule say it. I doubt 12 year old boys think about post structuralist implications of the reappropriation of racial language by the disenfranchised...

I completely agree, and I have heard teenage black kids make the distinction that 'nigger' and 'nigga' are not the same things, and said it was ok to use 'nigga' in conversation. I didn't, though, same as zekinskia, because it felt too awkward.
posted by insomnyuk at 2:59 PM on July 29, 2002


Just bought the book this last weekend.

I'm enjoying it immensely... and don't know where Kilson gets his ammunition. I'm white, and I don't feel the least bit empowered to invoke that term... I do, however, feel more educated about the whole dirty affair.

As for who get's to say what, and the implied double standard... in my book, it's pretty simple: individuals, a distinct groups get to decide what others call them. I have a name, and expect to be called that name. I belong to a number of organizations, and have certain expectations about what those organizations are called... and what I, as a member of those groups, am called in association.

It's just one of those things. It's common courtesy. As for African Americans calling each other "nigger"... well, that's something they'll have to work out.

(PS... Noticed that "nigger" isn't in our spell checker. Hm. Funny that.)
posted by silusGROK at 3:02 PM on July 29, 2002


I keep trying to bring this up at the meeting, but nobody wants to listen.

Cute. Here's a more concrete example: tell the MTV censors that if they're going to allow nigger to be in their videos then they should let everyone partake. Or tell the Fox censors to start bleeping cracker while they're bleeping everything else on the Springer show. I probably sound like some nutcase white supremecist after making those last statements, but eliminating double standards has historically proven to be a Good Idea.

No, there aren't any meetings, but there's influence. Top-down media influence is probably the most power cultural influence there is. I'm not expecting any change anytime soon. Race is a hot button issue, especially in the states. Who knows, perhaps the double-standards are just growing pains to equality.
posted by skallas at 3:21 PM on July 29, 2002


No, there aren't any meetings, but there's influence.

I think your problem is that you're assuming that a consensus has been formed, which is exactly what owillis was eluding to. For the sake of repetition and such, let me say this: blacks have absolutely no uniformity, except for the 95% that strangely vote Democratic. Like any other race, blacks have different religions, origins, backgrounds, SES's, etc. and, to my knowledge, the only thing that a super majority agree upon is to vote donkey.

You want the word nigger, or nigga, to go away? First find a unifying voice that the people will listen to. For instance, if Clinton came on TV and said, "Listen up kids, nigger is wrong, mmkay..." I guarantee that word would disappear.
posted by BlueTrain at 3:42 PM on July 29, 2002


...words only have a certain range of reasonable meaning.

so you're saying any discrete combination of phonemes has intrinsic meaning completely apart from the terms (context, purpose) of its usage?
posted by juv3nal at 3:59 PM on July 29, 2002


Wasn't it Dick Gregory who entitled his autobiography "Nigger"? He said something to the effect that every time someone uttered that epithet, they were promoting his book.
posted by Oriole Adams at 4:00 PM on July 29, 2002


I think your problem is that you're assuming that a consensus has been formed, which is exactly what owillis was eluding to

Actually a consensus has been formed in the media. That's one of the major points of my post. I think there would be a different perception of the morality in using nigger/nigga if MTV alone wouldn't give in to the double standard.

owillis says there's no meetings and I agree. I'm suggesting that pop-culture and media is the next best thing to the hypothetical meetings and not to understimate their influence.
posted by skallas at 4:01 PM on July 29, 2002


With my Jewish friends, I am comfortable poking fun at Jewish stereotypes, like greed, beards, or big noses.

You antisemitic faggot bastard! The holocaust was all your fault!

Just kidding.

Vis10n: (PS... Noticed that "nigger" isn't in our spell checker. Hm. Funny that.)

Neither is the word MetaFilter. No accounting for taste.
posted by bingo at 4:26 PM on July 29, 2002


The word nigger is unique among epithets in the same way that the black American experience is unique among that of other minorities in the U.S.

No, I think they're saying it because Nas and Ja Rule say it. I doubt 12 year old boys think about post structuralist implications of the reappropriation of racial language by the disenfranchised...

no, but they don't necessarily have to comprehend the post structuralist implications of what they're doing to effectively practice the subversion of language.

As for the whole (whiny Andy Rooney voice) "why is it ok for black folks to bandy the word about when it is clearly not ok for white folks?" (/whiny Andy Rooney voice) question, I have a hard time believing that question is asked in earnest, it's such a no brainer.
posted by Ty Webb at 4:49 PM on July 29, 2002


If I were to refer to my vagina as my cunt, I'd feel I were debasing myself. Even saying that much produces a twinge, even though I'm only making a point. The word is the absolute worst and most women I know personally think so. To further digress, the word "cootch" doesn't seem as offensive..in fact, I've heard it used humorously. I could care less, but the actual C word really bothers me.

I view the N word the same way. It bothers me to say it, even if making a point. "Nigga," however, doesn't move me much at all.

I suppose that's the status quo, and rightfully so in my opinion considering the origins of the N word.
posted by Modem Ovary at 4:51 PM on July 29, 2002


Neither is the word MetaFilter. No accounting for taste.

Also, you have to keep in mind that that's a completely different word from the inclusive, friendly term, "MetaFilta."
posted by webmutant at 5:15 PM on July 29, 2002


hahahaha Webmutant! MetaFilta.
posted by Modem Ovary at 5:20 PM on July 29, 2002


sudama must be having conniptions.

I haven't really changed my position in 20 years: let us rob these words of their power by removing the taboo. Unfortunately, arguments such as Kilson's seem to go the other direction.

Look. I'm a mutt, but mostly Swedish and German -- and I can't think of a single word for Swedes or Germans that in itself is a gross, conversation-stopping insult. Perhaps some remnant of the Great War -- "Kraut" or "Hun" -- is the only possible equivalent. I have no emtional hard-wiring to react to any of those terms. "Honky"? I'd give the person a quizzical look.

I can't help but wonder whether the tabooification of this word ties into the group-identity victimhood role that still plays too broad a part in black politics. More than the word itself, that's disturbing. Though this piece goes farther than I would, it's telling that its expression is so rare: John McWhorter on the failure of black leadership. McWhorter points out that this is a good thing, that the withering away of forceful black political leaders demonstrates the progress made.

Why, after all, is Kilson so concerned with some dumb word that some racists use? I don't buy the argument that permission for the word is the same as permission for more concrete forms of discrimination.
posted by dhartung at 5:29 PM on July 29, 2002


"I have to ask: why is it ok for black folks to bandy the word about as frequently as I blather words like "sex" and "chocolate" when it is clearly not ok for white folks (or people of any other race) to use it?"

because they're racist.
posted by jcterminal at 6:20 PM on July 29, 2002


Why is it OK for them seems to be beside the point.

My feeling is that the various races have to deal with enough bullshit from small minded idiots. If some large number of a given group would rather I not refer to them with a particular word, then it just seems polite to comply. It would be nice if there was a consensus on what the replacement value is. Colored, Black, African American (that last one always feels awkward to me for some reason, but whatever). Just let me know which word is least offensive and hurtful, and I'll happily substitute that if I need to refer to somebody as being a member of some group.

Now if the group wants to make it OK for somebody within the group to use a word they don't want me to use, that's fine too. Ultimately, it's probably hurtful to whatever effect eliminating the word was intended to bring about, but it's not my problem to fix.
posted by willnot at 6:29 PM on July 29, 2002


"African American" is silly and I will not use it nor direct others to do so. I am not from Africa, no one in my family that I know of is from Africa. "Black" works just fine. Bernie Goldberg's story about editors at CBS insisting on "African American" rather than "black" when the subject was Jamaican is hilarious.
posted by McBain at 7:59 PM on July 29, 2002


my 4 year old daughter came to watch a performance of the band i used to be in, at a record store one day. after the show, i was holding her, and chatting with one of my band members at the time, when she made the most sincere observation: you're brown.

my friend and i grinned, and we held up our fore-arms together so she could see are different skin tones side by side. then she made an even more sincere observation: you're the same.

now, i think she directly meant that our arms were the same length, and we each had a thumb and 4 fingers. but what i thought was really interesting was that it didn't really occur to her as anything other than skin tone. people always seem to say color, but it's really one schem of varying tones isn't it?

incidentally, i've refered to my friend mentioned above as 'dark skinned fellow' and while i've never actually asked him it he thinks that is appropriate, i think he would be fine with it. the key is that there is no disrespect going on. i also feel the need to put some type of reference to him as a person when i'm describing him and his "color" comes up. for example, i don't think i'd say 'he's blak' but i might say 'he's a black guy' is that any better or worse? i'm as lost as the next peckerwood.

anyway. just my two cents that seemed to be in the vein of what was being said, tho not directly related.
posted by folktrash at 9:07 PM on July 29, 2002


Hey, the Japanese have no problem with it.
posted by Iax at 9:15 PM on July 29, 2002


I have never had issue with the word "nigger" itself. It is an arbitrary utterance in my opinion. The intent in people's hearts and the content of their character is apparent in many other ways.

Folktrash, the story about your daughter is sweet and I appreciate it.
posted by McBain at 10:30 PM on July 29, 2002


The last time this book came up, my favorite comment was this: "My thought has always been, Call me what you want. Chances are you don't know me anyway.
Touch me and I'll end you." black8 at 3:40 PM PST on December 3
posted by Mack Twain at 11:21 PM on July 29, 2002


it shuts the door to the black community in my, and every non-black person's face

Um.

It occurs to me that I must have found a loophole -- somehow I was able to marry a black woman and raise a black son without ever calling them "niggers". Fancy that!

My mother recently told me of her teenage dalliance with a black boyfriend. She felt so excluded from his intimate circle of black friends who used the word casually and as a term of endearment that she demanded to be allowed to call him 'nigger' as proof of his love for her. To this day she insists that she was breaking down racial barriers and helping to eliminate the word's power to hurt. I explained to her as clearly as I could that what was really going on was she was trying to employ the terrible power of the word to make herself feel special, loved, intimate, privileged -- not to defeat it or eliminate it, but to leverage it for her emotional benefit. She didn't get it.

Obviously a great many of you don't either.

Did you want to talk about something, Dan?
posted by sudama at 4:34 AM on July 30, 2002


Not really. You?
posted by dhartung at 7:20 AM on July 30, 2002


Once again, I'm outed as someone who tries to treat people with respect and encourages others to do the same. The unbearable shame!
posted by sudama at 7:31 AM on July 30, 2002


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