- Site Feedback
- IDEA Sites
- Digital Freedoms
- 2012 Presidential Debates Guide
- Asia Youth Forum
- Big Apple Cogers
- Debate Changing Europe
- Debate in the Neighborhood
- Debating and Producing Media
- Debating the Future of Youth in Africa and Europe
- Digital Debating Blog
- Free Speech Debate
- Global Youth Forum
- Global Debate and Public Policy Challenge
- International Public Policy Forum
- Online Mentoring
- The Freedom Series
- Youth and Sports Mega-Events
THB that the word 'Nigger' should never be banned.
THB that the word 'Nigger' should never be banned.
The use of the N-word is a highly contentious issue in American society. Its roots come from the word "negro", Spanish for ‘black’ which was commonly used to refer to people with dark skin. The use of the N-word was then used throughout the majority of US history by white Americans as a racial slur, meant to degrade and harm anyone of African or Caribbean descent and reinforce the wideheld beleifs that those of white European descent were naturally superior. Today, it is highly taboo for a caucasians to use the N-word, even in reference to its offensive usage. Yet, it also has become widely used within the black community in a diversity of ways, both endearing and insulting. Many within the black community have subsequently called for quitting and even banning its use. In March of 2007, for example, the N-word was banned by the New York City Council. While the ban carries no legal punishment, it was a symbolic move that represents a tide of opposition to the use of the N-word in America. The debate remains very active within the black community, within localities and municipalities, in with the larger America political culture.
In debating terms this is a variant of the more general debates over the use of language, free speech and obscenity which carries a very specific contextual background.
|Points For||Points Against|
|It is no longer harmful.||Ignores and Trivialises History of Racial Abuse.|
|Decriminalising the Word||Sets low expectations of African-Americans.|
|Effect on Race Relations||Source of Division for African-Americans|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
It is no longer harmful.
Only intent, not the word “nigger”, can be racist. The word “nigger” is not racist. A word can never be racist, the only way a word is racist if it is used with racist intent and explained that way. There are other words besides "nigger" that is just as offensive because of the connotation, like “eggplant”. The word by itself has no meaning; the history of the word and the situations in which the word is used brings the word to life. The term is both endearing and disrespectful depending on the situation in which it used. For example I can say "You're my nigga!" and it's reviewed as positive or I can say "You're a nigga," and it can be seen as negative. The common debate about this word doesn't exist so much with how to use it, but more so who uses it.
Blacks use "nigger" to defy the history of the word and evoke empowerment Randall Kennedy. "Nigger". 2002. pp 46 - "Self-hatred...is an implausible explanation for why many assertive, politically progressive African Americans continue to say 'nigger' openly and frequently in conversations with one another. These are Americans who, in their own minds at least, use nigger not in subjection to racial subordination, but in defiance of it...Many black also do with nigger what other members of marginalized groups have done with slurs aimed at shaming them. They have thrown the slur right back in their oppressor' faces."
"Nigger" is a term of endearment between blacks. Black people frequently use the word "nigger" to identify with and bond with each other. For some, this relates to a common identification between blacks with the oppression represented by the word "nigger" this kind of usage is in a similar way to how other minority groups have used such oppressive words (E.g. British Pakistani Youths using the term ‘Paki Power’ and Jewish supporters of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club referring to themselves as ‘The Yid Army’) Such uses should be allowed as they express freedoms such words were designed to squash. Blacks should be allowed to refer to each other however they want seeing as the insult originated out of an aim to dehumanize them. Language is only effective in the way it is understood.
 Kennedy, Randall, ‘Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word’, 2002 p.46
Regardless of intent, the N-word still carries extremely negative connotations with America’s dark past. Many African-Americans see the word as dehumanising given the mailicious context it was commonly used in during the Post-Reconstruction era. To use the word now, even in a humourous, endearing context would be to at best, disregard the suffering of the past which is evoked by the word, or worse make something as grave as the abuses suffered into a figure for fun. Either way it is best if the word is not used by anyone to avoid such risk of offence.
Conversely, the use of the N-word among blacks can be and commonly is viewed as a form of "racial self-hatred" Randall Kennedy. "Nigger". 2002. pp 45 - "Eradicationists  maintain that blacks' use of nigger is symptomatic of racial self-hatred or the internalization of white racism, thus the rhetorical equivalent of black-on-black crime." This can only be damaging to how African-Americans are seen by the wider community, somehow making the word and the ugly stereotypes that surrounded them seem acceptable, thus proving the word’s ability to harm in the 21st Century.
Not every black person uses the N-word in any context, let alone as a term of endearment given its highly offensive and oppressive background. Indeed, the word may in fact be used by Blacks as an insult, used to describe a black person whose actions fit the very worst stereotypes of blacks as louche, lazy, criminal and garrulous that has permeated depictions in mass media going as far back as the mid-19th Century. Today, the most memorable usage of the N-word by an African American in popular culture was by comedian Chris Rock in his famous ‘Black People vs. Niggers’ section of his ‘Bigger & Blacker’ Stand-Up Routine in 1999, which highlighted the schism between those African-Americans who seek to avoid connotations with the word and those whose actions fit the stereotypes associated with it.
 Kennedy, Randall, ‘Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word’, 2002 p.45
Decriminalising the Word
Meaning of words shifts over time; "nigger" has softened. There was a time when the word "black" was offensive when describing African-Americans. The word "black" was used to define everything in a negative way, African Americans preferred to be called "Negro" or "Colored" in the late 1800s and most of the 1900s. It wasn't until figures like Stokely Carmichael, Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X, Huey P. Newton, James Brown, Syl Johnson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos began to endorse "Black Power" and "Black is Beautiful" did African Americans associate themselves with black as a signal of positivity. Prior to the Black Panther era, black was just as negative as nigger. The fact that the word has been switched from negative to positive, shows that language can be manipulated and changes with the time.
More common usage of the word can aid this process, making it more legitimate as well as changing its meaning from a derogative term applying to one particular race to a humorous term to describe someone in the same in which ‘retard’ has had meaning change from a word for someone with learning difficulties to a humorous term for someone who acts in a stupid way through common usage in this context in popular culture.
Education is better than banning "nigger" at fighting racism. "'Nigger' Please!". This Week in Race. July 14th, 2007 - "While censorship is never an answer to countering offensive speech, and while proposals to ban the word are, for the most part, symbolic in nature and would not be legally binding, education is clearly the best tool for ensuring that people have an informed view about the word – one that would temper and moderate their use or abuse of the term."
 Smith, Tom W., "Changing racial labels: from 'Colored' to 'Negro' to 'Black' to 'African American'." Public Opinion Quarterly, 1992, Vol. 56, No. 4, pp.496-514
The use of the word ‘black’ was bound to shift as Americans grew more enlightened in the Post-Civil Rights era. Black is the word of a colour and its usage in terms of one’s race is intentioned as a description of appearance, in the same way that ‘white’ is the name of a colour used to describe the racial appearance of Caucasians. The N-Word on the other hand was a bastardisation of a legitimate Spanish word to create a demeaning insult. It is unnatural unlike the word ‘black’ and thus should not be attempted to be treated as such.
Even if that particular point were true, it still would be dependent upon the group concerned to decide the word ought to be legitimised and there would need to be a wide consensus about this within the said group too. With the example of ‘retard’, the agency came from mainstream popular culture rather than from actual members of a group who in general, are largely unable to speak for themselves as a group. Within the Black community, there is still much division over whether to use the word and in what contexts, thus preventing the all-round consensus needed for a change in what the word represents from those who will be affected by it the most.
The need to educate people about the N-Word still implies a need to change attitudes to the word and what it truly means to blacks, thus engaging in some form of censorship. If people need to be educated in order to regulate use of the N-word, we basically are setting in motion a process that would lead to people self-censoring, thus reducing usage of the word in all contexts, and in effect banning the word in another way.
Effect on Race Relations
A dangerous double standard has emerged over the use of the word "Nigger". It is acceptable depending on who uses it. A black person can say it and it can be endearing, but if an outside race uses it, it is automatically racist. Difficulties can arise from its use being misinterpreted purely on the race of the person using it. Surely it is best for all if such an anomaly is removed by making it acceptable for all people to use the word within the changing context highlighted earlier in the debate. If this happens, then accusations of ‘preferential treatment’ towards African-Americans with regard to the use of words can no longer be used as a pretext for barely disguised prejudice which is still prevalent in society.
Banning the use of "nigger" alienates non-black minorities. "Banning use of n-word won’t silence racism… Is the word “nigger” somehow more offensive than the words “faggot,” “dyke,” “chink,” “spic,” “gook” or “kike”? By specifically banning a racial slur against one group, the [New York] city council fails to address the problems faced by various other groups. Why should it be acceptable to use slurs against gays, lesbians, Chicanos, Hispanics, Asians and Jews, but not blacks? In a city comprised of many different racial groups, who all face problems with racism and stereotypes, it is highly inappropriate for the city council to specifically condemn the use of racist terms against only one."  Allowing the use of words can serve to make the person who uses the abuser to think more about the effect that said words would have if there is a similar insult that affects their particular demographic.
If societies such as the United States are to be truly Post-Racial, then surely it needs to move beyond the 1970’s debate around the word and focus on other areas of race relations that are directly affected by policy such as blacks having lower educational achievement, higher unemployment rates and higher rates of incarceration in federal prisons. By focussing energies on these issues and what can be done to correct them, the terms of debate can shift away from one framed in terms of the past to one based in the here and now, resulting in the necessary real change instead of tokenistic gestures such as the one made in New York in 2007.
The controversy over whether it is acceptable for non-blacks to use the word clearly underlines why the word should not be used in civilised conversation. The N-word still evokes painful reminders of the suffering of black Americans at the hands of oppressive whites, thus creating the automatic assumption of malice when a white person uses it, regardless of context. Surely it is best for the purposes of clarity and understanding between the races that all people are prevented from using the N-word.
The banning of the N-word should not have to prevent the banning of other words created artificially in order to offend. The banning of the N-word would not and does not put the problems facing other racial and sexual minorities on a lower footing than those facing black people and insults against these minorities are still unacceptable in a civilised society. If anything, that particular case against banning the N-word would be an argument for banning other words that cause massive offensive to large groups of people alongside the N-word.
It is the fact that the word is still acceptable in some contexts that can help to promote negative stereotypes about African-Americans. These stereotypes can subconsciously effect education, justice and employment policies that can help perpetuate the gaps in achievement, employment and incarceration between blacks and non-blacks. Until it is made abundantly clear that the N-word can never be used in any context, the exaggerated negative stereotypes associated with it will continue, making it difficult for African-Americans to be treated as seriously as white counterparts.Improve this
Ignores and Trivialises History of Racial Abuse.
It is clear to everyone that the N-word carries clear historical significance. It was used by Caucasians to insult African-Americans and legitimised abuse that dehumanised a significant proportion of the population. The use of the N-word in a humorous context or otherwise, may cause the harm of people actually forgetting the significance of the word as a tool of oppression. This may result in the story of civil rights being seen as purely in the past, despite the difficulties African-Americans face today.
The N-word’s usage today, in a humorous context or otherwise makes it easier to forget the history of abuse suffered by Black people in America for over three centuries, thus trivialising it and the protest against the words usage today. This carries the harm of undermining the struggles of the past and the present facing African-Americans, preventing the emphasis on problem-solving required to do something that can address struggles that poor African-Americans do face.
This causes the harm of making the N-word legitimate to use in all positive and negative contexts, thus legitimising the word’s use in a derogatory context. While using the word may be recognised as offensive, the taboo surrounding it will disappear, as has been the case with other race and sexuality specific insults in the past. If the taboo is removed, then the hard work of establishing the notion of equality will be disregarded, with African-Americans being associated with a word that can only have negative connotations through stereotypes or history.
Usage of particular words will not reduce its history, particularly if that history is taught and constantly reminded of. The story of civil rights in America is never far from the national consciousness, with the debate over its legacy continuing to this day. All Americans will know of the struggle of the past, and would not want to reduce its significance in any way. Using the N-word would not this as the word tends to be used in a personal context, rather than referring to historical injustice.
Use of the word in a positive, non-derogatory manner may actually help to disarm the word, turning it from being associated with negative stereotypes and a torrid episode in American History to being a word used in a casual context without malice. This is why many African-Americans use the word as a means of reclaiming the word and allowing Blacks to define themselves without limits.Improve this
Sets low expectations of African-Americans.
The use of the N-Word was borne out of a hatred of African-Americans based on notions of racial superiority in the early periods of the United States. The use of the N-word, combined with the development of negative stereotypes of Black people as unintelligent, brutish, virtually sub-human beings, justifying the abuses of African-Americans that extended to denial of the franchise and extra-judicial lynchings. The attendant stereotypes associated with the word created low expectations of African-Americans with regards to successfully breaking out of the disadvantage created by two centuries of enforced inequality through challenging them. The use of the N-word by African-Americans undermines efforts to break from the past as it signifies an open embrace of the negative depictions and expectations of Black people, effectively preventing an attempt to abandon the word, its connotations and the low expectations set for African-Americans by Whites.
These low expectations created by the N-word’s use are equally pernicious with regard to how African-Americans are seen by other racial groups. The embracing of the negative stereotype by African-Americans in the prominent field of entertainment sends the following message to non-Blacks that; i) usage of the word is perfectly acceptable regardless of the atrocious history associated with it and ii) the negative stereotypes associated with the word portrayed in its popular usage have a degree of truth to them. This creates the harms of the word being used freely, creating a legitimate pre-text for racial abuse as well as the harm of stereotypes informing everyday conduct towards African-Americans in the workplace and education, harming their chances of success.
The earliest acceptable uses of the word “Nigger” in the Post-Civil Rights era in the United States came in the form of “Blaxploitation” movies such as ‘Shaft’ (1971) and ‘Superfly’ (1972), which tended to depict black characters in a criminal context and were usually written, directed and produced by white filmmakers. These films can be accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes of black people whilst making a word originally used as an insult turn into something acceptable for black people themselves to use. This in turn creates an internalisation of the criminal expectations of black people living in the inner cities of America expressed in the films, thus undermining any real empowerment of black Americans.
The use of the N-word in the past may have been in an abusive context, but the word’s proliferation in popular culture has removed the harms. Expectations of African Americans won’t just come from the words usage but from other areas; Black achievers in the professions, in particular politics (the current President is Mixed-Race, while the current Attorney General and previous two Secretaries of State were Black) show that the role models are there for high achievements amongst African-Americans and the constant emphasis on the N-words pernicious effects can be seen as little more than excuse making for personal failures. The use of the N-word no more condemns an individual to failure than the use of insults against Asians makes them automatically successful.
White audiences of popular culture are far more discerning than the Opposition gives credit for. They will realise that the negative stereotypes of African-Americans that come from the N-word’s usage in popular is little more than a caricature and that it is grossly unfair to judge an entire race on a few unrealistic depictions in the media. If people are fair minded, they will not judge ‘by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’ to quote Martin Luther King and see that while some people may fit stereotype as is the case with many different races and cultures, many people do not conform, and it is harmful to base ideas on the connotations of one word. Indeed, the usage of the N-word can only be judged to be harmful based on intent and context not the actual usage itself.
Once again, the role of popular culture is taking the rap for people making the wrong choices. Blaxploitation films were clearly marketed as fantasy, with outlandish plotlines that defied reality. Many African-Americans produced these films as well, in the hope of celebrating the uniqueness of African-American culture, which did include the use of the N-word. To blame these films on rates of crime or underachievement is to abdicate personal responsibility from those who commit crime or do not try to make best use of the public education available. This once again proves how the debate over the N-word and its usage distracts from the real harms affecting African-Americans.
Source of Division for African-Americans
African-Americans are divided over the words usage. All recognise the negative history of oppression associated with the word yet differ over the effect using the word will have. Those opposed to using it claim that African-American usage of the word will detoxify the word, allowing it to be used more widely, resulting the undermining of the potency of the word and the history of why it is so controversial. Popular usage of the word will create an endorsement of negative stereotypes and racial abuse. Those in favour of using the N-word see it as a form of reclamation, turning the meaning of the word on its head and reducing its harms. This division has been a source of division and controversy amongst the Black community, as evidenced by the reaction to rapper Nas’ attempt to name his album ‘Nigger’ in 2008. Such a division over the words use distracts the Black community from focussing energies on other areas of grievance, such as in equality of prosperity between races.
Reactions to the use of the N-word by non-Blacks also can be a cause of controversy, divisive amongst African-American commentators. Those that are against its use will point to controversial instances where the N-word has been used or even cases where other slang words have been used as an insult against Blacks (e.g. the Don Imus controversy in 2007) as proof of the damaging effect that the N-word has upon what is viewed by whites as acceptable when discussing matters of race. Whilst there are some African-American commentators, particularly conservatives such as Armstrong Williams, who argue that the word’s usage, by Blacks and Whites alike should not constitute a harm in a colour-blind society. Such positions are controversial, and can lead to greater argument over whether the legacy of the civil rights struggle is being undermined or whether those advocates against banning the word are taking part in ‘Uncle Tomism’. Such queries add a damaging personal subtext to the debate, adding a loaded symbolism that makes the debate far more divisive than it need be.
The previously mentioned internalisation of the negative stereotypes created by using the N-word, and the opposing reaction of avoiding such stereotypes, has created a division within Black-American society (which may also follow class lines) between those whose actions confirm the worst stereotypes of Blacks and those who whose actions do not conform. There is an animosity from the latter to the former, whose lack of education, criminal activity and welfare dependency live up to the stereotypes entailed in the word which the former view as unfair. Indeed, the N-word may sometimes be used by the former to describe the latter, thus underlining how damaging the word is to the self-esteem of the community and damages any sense of unity amongst African-Americans.
Debate over issues, particularly one over the N-word are healthy and beneficial in the long run. Conant discussion over the terms of what is acceptable and unacceptable when using the N-word results in greater awareness of the context in which it is unacceptable. As Prop, concedes, it is the symbolism and history that makes the debate a visceral one, not the debate itself.
Attitudes to the poor (particularly those on welfare) are general bad and infused with stereotype across the races. If attitudes of middle-class to Blacks to poor Blacks are manifested in the word’s usage, then it is more a reflection of the harmful intent of the person using it in that particular context rather than the usage of the word by all people at all times. Banning the words usage to prevent such instances will do little. An attitude change is required by those who use it negatively.Improve this
‘Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word’, Randall Kennedy, 2002
Curate this debate
If you are an academic or highly knowledgeable about a particular debate could you give an hour or two a month to curate a debate?
Be a debatabase editor
Idebate needs editors from around the world to check, moderate and create content for debatabase and the site more generally. Editors are vital in making the site run smoothly and ensuring that debates are as informative as possible.