WASHINGTON ― There is an ongoing debate around words used pejoratively to refer to different groups of people. Who gets to use words like “nigga” (or “nigger”) or “Redskin”? Moreover, who gets to serve as the arbiter in deciding who gets to use them? Are the words okay if used by members of the communities they were created to define? Is it ever okay for those outside of the community to use them? Is there some level of “downness” one can exhibit to get a pass?
These were questions weighed by panelists and participants for seven hours in a filled-to-capacity room Tuesday at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE).
“When you’re talking about … prohibited words … it is all about power and/or access,” said writer and activist Gyasi Ross, who also serves as editor-at-large of Indian Country Today. Appropriate use of the words, he said, is “determined largely by context, who’s saying it, how they’re saying it, the imagery (associated with saying it), how much they know about the history.”
For many in the room, there was in-fighting about whether the words should be packed away with the painful histories out of which they were wrought, or if they should be claimed and owned by those they were intended to oppress.
For Ross, like many in the room, the latter held true.
“As people of color, we have to feel comfortable owning these histories and keeping these histories internal and sacred,” he said. “Because our ancestors survived that history and had faithfulness to survive that history.”
To Ross, the words belong to the people they describe — and only those people.
“Far be it for any person not of that history, not of that family, not of that tribe, not of that community to have an opinion on this,” he said. “This isn’t about subjective offense. … It’s about voice. … It’s about saying we have enough agency, autonomy and intelligence to decide what’s right for us. And that will be an internal decision.
“It is the portrait of privilege when (Washington football owner) Dan Snyder says, ‘This is how you’re supposed to feel about this,’” Ross added.
But to Dr. Eddie Moore Jr., who has worked extensively in diversity education within academia, and who used both variations of the N-word freely throughout the presentation, deconstructing the words was of equal importance as determining whether the words belong to determining who rightfully owns the words and their histories.
“It’s absolutely important to reclaim and de-colonize” the words and the pain associated therewith, said Moore. “But it’s also important to understand the edifice [of the words] and figure out if it’s really ours [or if it has been] imposed on us.”
In other words, do the words carry certain inescapable stereotypes that cannot be changed no matter who uses them? This idea was tested when Moore asked the predominantly Black audience to define “nigga” and turned up with a list of mostly negative associations.
“White supremacy doesn’t even need White people to uphold it anymore,” said writer and activist Rosa Clemente. People of color, as proven in Moore’s exercise, will do that job for them.
Worthy of mention in the discussion, suggested Dr. Dena Samuels, an assistant professor of women’s and ethnic studies at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, are words like “queer” and “fag,” which have been used to demean members of the LGBT community.
Noting that some members of the community, including herself, self-identify as queer (newer iterations of the acronym include a “Q,” for queer, at the end), she wondered if the words could be placed on the same plane. When the predominantly Black audience decided it is not the same, someone pointed out that one would most likely have to self-identify as queer, and it would not be something hurled simply because of the way one looks.
But, as another participant said during the conference, “The dynamics of safety has never been solely concerned with how individuals identify. It’s in addition to how people identify you.”