Leave the N-Word Alone

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Illustration for TIME by Edel Rodriguez

The war over the "n" word has been joined. Last week, after a one-sided debate, the New York City Council voted for a toothless ban on the word nigger. While acknowledging that the measure was only symbolic and unenforceable, activists and council members practically fell over each other to rail against the word's toxic effect. The ban, of course, will fail, not because it is an unenforceable waste of time, words and taxpayer's money (it's technically a "resolution," which does not require the Mayor's signature), but for the same reasons that other kinds of cleansing efforts have failed for decades: nigger is a great word.

Black puritans have been trying to ban the word since the 1920s when the white hipster Carl Van Vechten published the book Nigger Heaven. They continued their war through attacks on Redd Foxx, blaxploitation and Donald Goines. But all their efforts have been rewarded with gangsta rap, an art form that has made nigger arguably the most well-known racial or ethnic slur on the planet.

Now the new puritans have coalesced into a movement, creatively named Ban The N-Word. Their campaign is mostly virtual, consisting of e-mail manifestos and a website which, among other things, rails against the evils of Eddie Murphy's new film Norbit. The New York City Council resolution is the movement's first victory, and now they are hatching plans to bring their task force to a town near you.

Like all language or thought police, the nigger-nazis are humorless snobs who dream of a world without toilets. They are also caught in the ancient and reductionist view that the black community is little more than a motley crew of victims. Whenever someone uses nigger, they break out into breathless stories of lynchings, lunch counters and police dogs. They then assert that we nigger-users are doing little more than confirming and perpetuating our own ignorance and participating in a racist conspiracy.

I don't mean to belittle the very real effects of racism. But I do mean to belittle people who see me as nothing more than the progeny of slaves. The black puritanical view turns black people from active agents into helpless targets, and seeks to deny us the ability to look at our condition and interpret it as we will. I've heard nigger used as an honorific, an insult, a verb and even an interjection. I get a warm feeling every time I hear someone come up with a new way to deploy it.

That's because more than logic, morals and opposable thumbs, irony is the pass-card into the human family. It is amazing to hear people in one breath assert that nigger-users are ignorant of history, and then in another breath say that no other group uses someone else's slurs to describe itself. And yet country singer Toby Keith's latest album is called White Trash With Money.

The common retort to my nigger-boosting is that I would be ready to fight if a white person called me a nigger. This is true, but more because I'd be expected to be offended than for any real hurt feelings. Sure, I would not take kindly to whites calling me "nigger" — just as black audience members didn't take kindly to Michael Richards' recent racist rant — but I also wouldn't assume that I'd be able to walk into a honky-tonk bar and address the patrons as white trash. Words are contextual. A man on the street can call his wife "baby," but that doesn't mean I should be able to as well.

The New York City Council resolution is a desperate, last-ditch effort, launched by people with a myopic view of their own blackness. Their campaign would all but turn us into statues, unable to laugh at the world — and most importantly, to laugh at ourselves.

I never thought I would say this in regards to race, but the killjoys need to get over it — and leave the n-word alone.