The N- (and other colorful) words 3

(Dear readers, I will occasionally have guest posts that I think are provocative, informative or just plain hilarious. 
This guest post is written by  Christina, friend and sister blogger, who blogs at Cool It Now.)

Yea, I said it.

I’ll say it again.


The enigma of racial language is funny to me. Not amusing, but definitely laughable at times.

Are you appalled? Squirming in your chair? Not sure what to feel about this word and/or my usage of it?
Don’t worry you’re not alone. Consider this a taste test. So you don’t like this taste, if the n-word was used would you feel the same way? If you feel two different reactions to these very similar words, then you have entered the “Racial Slur Enigma Zone”. (Cue Twilight Zone Theme) This zone consists of mixed feelings about words that for all effective purposes are synonyms

I do this occasionally, especially when people use “n-gga”. It’s a social experiment of some sorts, Some words are more acceptable to be inserted into daily conversation. “N-gga” here. “N-gga” there. “N-gga, n-gga” everywhere. Society is so de-sensitized by the pervasive use of the “n-gga” that we can’t even recognize when it is used.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not standing on a soapbox that wasn’t a little dirty at one time. In high school, I used the “n-gga” like it was my job to plug it in conversation. But somewhere between 11th and 12th grade, not long after I finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X my cultural and social awareness was fine-tuned.  Soon after, I went on a “Bay of Pigs”-type mission. My quest was to purge the world of using this horrid word because it is filled with negativity. In actuality all I did was point out when people used it in conversation, without really understanding why. I guess I felt it was my “black” duty. (I was a naive teenager…don’t hold it against me.)

Fast-forward to my junior year in college, and I took a course called, “Issues in Social Justice”. This is when I starting taking a more analytical look at racial slurs. Despite being invisible, words can pack a punch, which is why I respect language. People feign apathy about words hurting, when realistically words have the power to trigger various emotions. However one thing always confused me, why are some slurs less offensive than others?

Words like coon are interesting, made even more interesting when inserted into general conversation replacing the “-n-gga”.  Why are we (black folks) the only ethnic group who uses racial slurs to “endear” each other?  The English language is one with the most words in it, so it is reasonable to assume there will not be a shortage.  Thus leading us to assume that there can be other words used besides the “n-gga” or coon, to name a few.

I completely understand that us Black folks are resilient.  We take things that are supposed to harm us and use them to help us, much like what people have tried to do with racial slurs.  However, some things (in this case words) need not be used because they actually do more harm than good.  This philosophy ONLY works when you take something negative and turn it into a positive.  Saying, “Hey, my n-gga.” is fine if you want to greet a friend in that manner.  My issue isn’t with the use of the word; it’s with the definition of it.  As of late, “n-gga” has become synonymous with the exact slur it is meant to be and we are trying to avoid, ignorance. Somehow this feels counter-productive.

Racial language is complex.  But one thing is for sure; racism is rooted in language. Making white synonymous with purity means that black is synonymous with impurity.  By ranking slurs on a 5-point scale of offensiveness or acceptability, is headed in the wrong direction.  The best course of action is to use different words for articulation.  It is good practice for the mind, and rather than garnering negative attention for the words we use, we will attract attention for what we say.  I always tell people, “The breadth of your vocabulary shows me the depth of your thoughts.”

About Candelaria Silva

Candelaria Silva-Collins is a marketing, community outreach and programming consultant; writer; and trainer/facilitator who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has designed and facilitated workshops on a wide variety of topics including communication, facilitation, job search skills, team building, and parenting issues. She currently coordinates the Community Membership Program of the Huntington Theatre Company. Her work as Director of ACT Roxbury was profiled in several publications, including The Creative Communities Builders Handbook. Candelaria’s children’s stories, short stories, essays and reviews have been published in local and national publications and she is an active blogger. Her publications include the booklets, Handling Rejection; Pushing through Shyness: Networking Tips when You’re Shy, Slow to Warm Up or Just don’t Feel you Belong; and Real Questions about Sex & Relationships for Teens: A Discussion Guide for Parents. She has served on the boards of Goddard College, Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston Foundation for Architecture, and Discover Roxbury. She is currently Chair, Designators of the Henderson Foundation.

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3 thoughts on “The N- (and other colorful) words

  • Jim

    Bravo! There are words, like the ones you mention, that I have almost never spoken and have written even less. However, the ignorant people who use racial, sexual, and religious slurs don’t read much anyway, so I do get the sense that I’m swimming against the tide. In my lifetime, Americans have generally become stupider, erudition has become a laughing stock and our place in the world is slipping, slipping. It’s not a surprise that the language of the ignorant dominates the popular culture when class and race warfare seems to be the subtext of so much of our public discussion. Do I sound bitter? I am.

  • LeeAnn

    Of course, I wasn’t alive during the years my mother was refused entry in the front doors of the homes of her own family. But she made sure that I knew how she felt about it. “Squaw” was never to be uttered in our home – nor half-breed. Nor, as she called it, the “n word.” Of course, neither was the “f word.” Words hold memories, words carry hate, words can be more powerful than a bullet. She instilled this into me so deeply that I still can’t make myself say them and I bristle when I hear them spoken. I watch with interest this dialoge about such words being endearing, an indicator that we are in the same struggle and I try to be open and accept that argument but something inside just won’t let me.”They” say that we can remove the negative power of those words – maybe. I guess that’s possible but still I just can’t “go there.” Sometimes I try. Then, I just give up and figure the words and whatever “they” want to make of it is more powerful than me so I just let it be. Then I don’t know if that’s so great either. Sometimes this one seems like a small thing in all the difficulties we have to over come. But if it’s so small, why is it so big? I wish I could decide how I feel about this. Thank you for writing about it, maybe someday I will come to clarity about it.

  • Christina

    Thank you for your thoughtful responses! I know this subject can be sensitive and controversial, but I honest discourse is the only way we’ll learn about each other and ourselves.
    LeeAnn, a quote that I carry with me is one said by Alice Walker, “The most common way to give up power is thinking you don’t have any.” You do have the power to change the way others think about this word, it’s use, and definition. My views on its use has changed over time, I still would prefer it not used but I am more understanding. A great book to read is by Randall Kennedy, “Nigger: The strange career of a troublesome word.” It gave me another perspective to consider.

    Jim, I agree that we allow ignorance and stupidity to pervade society on a far larger scale than ever before. It frustrates and annoys me that people are glorified for nonsense, and going overseas provided a new perspective for me about the perception of Americans (and especially Black Americans) with our foreign counterparts. With the recent events of ‘black face’ in Australia and France, people are outraged. However, how can we expect others to respect us, if we don’t respect ourselves? And while this battle, this word, may seem small it has claimed many casualties. So thank you both for your input.

    Thank you Miss Candy for posting this on your blog. I only hope that other will read it and start a dialogue.