Thursday, 19 May 2011

A Question of Language - the 'n' word

*Please be aware, there is adult language in this post.*

I love language.  It's why I started writing stories.  It's why I read so much I don't have time to write stories anymore.

I believe language is powerful.  Which is why some of the books I've read recently have deeply affected me.  Namely, Eutopia: A Novel of Terrible Optimism and X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills.

Both books make use of the *n* word.  And both should.  Now, as I mentioned in a previous post, the 'n' word, above other words, makes me cringe.  I'm white.  I've never had it used against me in anger.  I've tried to never say it or write it without good cause (good cause being to point out how horrible the word is).  I don't like the idea of hearing people of colour use it against each other - even as a word of 'empowerment' or to 'take it back' (much the same as how I don't like women calling each other b****es as a complement).

So why do I think the books above did well by using it? 

In Eutopia the word is used the way it was historically: as a racial slur.  It was a put-down for the black doctor in this small white community.  Running away from history and pretending people didn't act like that won't make it go away.  The word has a cringe-worthy effect BECAUSE of how it was used.  Because of its historical context.  And it SHOULD make people cringe when they hear it.  It should remind people that we've never treated each other well and that we'll have to do better in the future.

God Loves, Man Kills only uses it once.  Kitty Pryde is called a mutant, and she substitutes the 'n' word to show how hurtful being called a mutant is (thus showing that other racial slurs have the same power, when you're on the receiving end).  Unfortunately as humans we've come up with lots of racial slurs.  New ones for each group we feel 'threatens' our way of life. 

If we forget, if we whitewash our history, then we'll see it repeated.   Several months ago there was a lot of controversy over a publisher's decision to replace the word 'nigger' with 'slave' in a version of Huckleberry Finn.  Now, I don't know about you, but slave has very different connotations for me.  For one thing, I don't cringe when I hear the word.  I love classical history and I understand that the Greeks and Romans couldn't have achieved as much as they did (especially in the arts) without slavery.  Slavery's been common throughout history.  Doesn't make it right, of course.  But there's definitely a different feeling to the word.

Taking the word out removes a teaching tool for kids - both in terms of how language can be used to edify or demean, but also with regards to history.  How will children of the future understand the tragedy of To Kill a Mockingbird, if they don't understand the underlying hatred one group of people had for another, simply because of their skin colour?  All of which is expressed in that one word.

We can't afford to forget our history.  We can't afford to pretend that some of the words used in the past (and present) were specifically designed to hurt.  Sticks and stones may break my bones... and hateful words will scar me for life.

Authors have the means to remind people why things are the way they are, warts and all.  History is rarely pleasant, but if we don't want a worse future, we'd better remember it.


Kaz Augustin said...

I have the same reaction to a word common to my part of the world. "Maid". "Do you prefer Indonesian or Filipino maids?" As if they dress up in pretty frou-frou skirts, serve macaroons with tea and occasionally walk the dog.

The correct word, which everyone likes to brush over, is "servant". For someone with a family of her own and children she literally will not see for years. For someone who is forced to work seven days a week, getting up at 6am and only going to bed after everyone else. For someone who eats after everyone else, washes after everyone else, cleans after everyone else and still gets beaten, raped and verbally abused. Servant, not maid.

Jessica Strider said...

Sounds more like a slave. Few rights and unable to leave because they need the money too much.