I came across a Piers Morgan piece (link) today in which he comments on use of the N-word and its widespread use among Black Americans. Morgan caveats his view and it would be unfair not to highlight he tries to be sensitive about it, but effectively he says Black people are undermining the civil rights movement by using the word. Given the common use of the word among Black Britons, and my disagreement with his position, I thought I’d detour from my usual topics to take this issue on.
There are elements of Morgan’s piece that I find myself more or less in agreement with. In fact, I think he makes a strong start. To cite him at length on the use of the N-word by Black people: ‘They’re aware of its history; they know from their parents and grandparents that arrogant, dumb, racist whites used it as a wicked, derogatory insult against their black slave forebears. And they enjoy the freedom of being able to say it now in the knowledge that it’s become taboo for whites to do so’. On this I would say, for some Black people, Morgan is on the right track. However, he then starts going in the wrong direction.
In his critique of Mike Tyson’s views on the use of the N-word by Black people, Morgan displays a lack of empathy that prevents him from seeing a point of view different to his own. To some extent I don’t blame him. Morgan sees the whole story of the N-word from a White metropolitan urban standpoint, and given his background that might be expected. However, I would ask Morgan to try to step into Tyson’s shoes (and that of many other Black people) and try harder to get where he is coming from.
To deny Black people the right to use this word, to many Black people, would actually undermine our status as free men and women. Human beings have long understood the power of a name. In the Bible, the author of the first chapters of Genesis uses man’s ability to name things as a way to show his power over them. Likewise, when human beings wish to dehumanise one another they often strip them of their names and give them numbers. What Morgan needs to try and appreciate is that in the eyes of many Black people allowing White people to name us, and then later redefine the terms in which we are named, would maintain a certain dynamic we are keen to move away from. It is not that we enjoy the taboo of being able to say something White people cannot say. It is that we, as Black people, enjoy being able to determine ourselves on our own terms. Many White people may not approve, often with decent reasons like Morgan, but this is not something we are seeking anyone’s approval on.
Likewise, when Morgan says the N-word ‘symbolises…white-run, imperialist, violent, sexually malevolent barbarism’, that is all entirely from a White person’s perspective. To many Black people the N-word is actually associated with the first time you heard So Solid Crew drop ‘21 seconds’, laughing at Chris Rock’s stand up, or watching great TV like ‘The Wire’. Its use has become so common that to reject it entirely would be to reject contemporary Black culture. To paraphrase a well known Chris Rock skit, there’s a lot of N-words in a Doctor Dre song. For a Black person to entirely remove themselves from the use of the word, they would almost have to stop being Black. Like allowing White people to define us, that’s something most Black people simply won’t do.
I appreciate where Morgan is coming from with his arguments, and to some extent I accept the case he makes about racists, but I go back to the words he quotes from Tyson: ‘We have to think about how this word originated, where it came from. Just because we stop saying it won’t stop them (white racists) from saying it. They’re mad because they say it’s a double standard if they can’t say what we say amongst each other? I don’t plan on stopping saying it anytime soon’ Morgan is viewing the word with reference to a group of White people, in this case the sadly racist type. What he needs to understand is that for many Black people the word is not used with reference to White people or anyone else: We definite ourselves and on our own terms.