Friday, March 25, 2011

From malignant to malignment

I read an interesting blog post recently about the removal of the "n-word" from Huckleberry Finn by the publishing company NewSouth Books, in an effort to erase the word from the social vernacular. They plan to replace the word with what they determined to be the less offensive term "slave". What I find particularly interesting about the use of the word slave, is that it removes the pejorative connotation from the description (essentially the fact that at that time all people with dark skin were called the n-word), and instead just makes the word a simple descriptor. However, the replacement actually becomes somewhat offensive in itself, because instead of the honest implication that white people at the time called people with dark skin the n-word, the implication becomes that all people with dark skin were slaves.
As with the blog posting above, I have to agree that I think the publishing company's heart is in the right place, but to remove the word is trying to rewrite history, and actually does a disservice to both the book itself, as well as history. Somewhere around a year ago, I read a *somewhat* interest book called The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why (thanks, Nakia). While the book did not delve particularly deep into how the word has changed over time, or the ramifications the current accepted uses - i.e. music, slang, term of endearment - will have on the survival of the word, what I found particularly salient was the writers perspective about how continued use, regardless of who is using it or for what reason, keeps the word alive, and therefore it will continue to be used (essentially continued use breeds continued use).
I was having a discussion a while back with someone about this particular point, and she was saying that the "reclaimed" version of the word, used mostly in music and as a term of endearment, can take the sting out of the word, and therefore it loses its power over time. While I don't disagree with this point, and it has been done successfully with other words (queer, cunt, etc.), the word has been used non-pejoratively by African-Americans for some time now, and the word has lost none of its original sting if used by the right (or I suppose wrong) person. In fact, because of its *hopefully* limited use in society, the word can actually have a sharper edge today than it has in times past, because the use of it is so deliberate and pointed; whereas (unfortunately so) the word was thrown around by what would in today's society would be considered nice, normal people. This is not to say that these people were totally unaware of what they were saying; and certainly believing yourself to be better than someone else because of the color of your skin has to cause some alarm bells to go off inside your head, but I think that they lived in a society that reinforced the idea that they were good people, and that treating others as being only partially human, or even worse as property, was not a big deal. Today people who use the word are truly showing themselves to be on the fringe of society, and that they're representing a viewpoint that is hateful and ignorant.
Whenever I'm confronted with the above argument regarding the reclaiming of the word, I acknowledge the legitimacy of the argument, but caution people not to be hasty to imagine that the word is going to eventually just become another variation on the word friend. I think an example of a word that has been extinguished due to the specific efforts of the group that it was directed at, is the racial slur for jews, k*ke. There was a deliberate attempt by jews to eradicate this word from any and all use. Never using the word for slang, or attempting to reclaim it, jews simply would not utter the word, and anyone using the word was proven to be showing their hatred and anti-semitism. Their efforts were successful, and except for a very few small self-defined hate groups, rarely (if ever) do you hear the word uttered. I think this is more the route that the n-word should take; efforts to reclaim the word have been slow and unfruitful, I think it might be time for a new course of action - all out eradication.
Note: My perspective is my perspective, and there are many other perspectives that are not only valid, but possibly more correct. I cannot and will not tell someone, especially someone who the word has been used against, or could be used against, not to use the word. I simply think that perpetuation of the use of the word does just that, regardless of the context.

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