Last week NBC presented a special that chronicled the first five years of Saturday Night Live. For many of us, the mid-70s doesn’t seem that long ago, but two skits were shocking – they showed how much racial attitudes in this country have changed over time.
In the first sketch, Chevy Chase plays a job interviewer, and comedian Richard Pryor plays the applicant. Chase decides to play word association with Pryor – tree/dog, fast/slow, rain/snow. But then Chase starts throwing out racially loaded words and phrases: Negro. Colored. Burr head. Spearchucker. Jungle bunny. And finally, nigger. Pryor’s responses? Whitey. Redneck. Cracker. White trash. Honky. And finally, dead honky.
Later in the show, SNL cast member Garrett Morris plays an inmate auditioning for a prison theater production. To the white judges, he sings, “I’m going to get me a shotgun and kill all the whiteys I see/When I kill all the whiteys I see, then whitey he won’t bother me.” This was groundbreaking work for TV, funny to some, offensive to others, but clearly an indication that life had changed much over the past 30 years. It made me think of Joe Don Brandon, a local community activist. Brandon, who is white, has asked the Fort Worth City Council to consider banning the use of the word “nigger” in the city.
Censorship is always bad in a free society, but this issue runs all over the place. Rap musicians have been using the word “nigga” in their songs, which many older black civil rights veterans find offensive. Many younger blacks think it is their right to use the term within their culture – but that whites should be tarred and feathered for using it. I am sick of the media always referring to use of this term as “the n-word,” acting as if the real word never existed. Part of the reason younger black rappers have no problem using it is that they don’t have the history with it. They may not know that the word was a central part of racial segregation, part of the culture that fostered slavery, lynchings, ghettoes and the lack of opportunity for blacks. Many younger Africans-American figure this term pisses off their parents and grandparents, so why not use it in music and their conversations with friends.
But banning such words, or pretending they don’t exist, would remove the importance of their history. Not that we should be throwing this word around in casual conversation, but no word has one, universal meaning. It depends how it is used.
At a newspaper where I worked years ago, we were talking about a recent cross-burning. I told my colleagues about one of my neighbors, who defended a cross-burning because the family in whose yard the burning took place were nothing more than “nigger-lovers.”
I got called into the office and told that I shouldn’t be using such a racially insensitive term. I argued that just the opposite was taking place – that my comments were racially sensitive – that I was discussing the issue responsibly. No dice on that one. This was literally a black and white issue.
And that is the problem with any group trying to ban any sort of words or phrases. Language is fluid. When Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885, he used the word “nigger” 215 times, mostly referring to Huck’s raft-mate, Jim. He was depicted as a smart and sympathetic character, and Twain’s use of the word simply reflected his times. But some now are pushing to have this classic novel banned from schools, based on the use of one word.
Intent here is the key. Banning words or phrases in all situations takes away the chance to understand their meaning. The Holocaust was a horrible historical event, but we don’t want to ban that term because of the horror it refers to. If we banned it, we’d run the risk of removing the event from history.
It all boils down to whose ox is being gored. I hate the practice of refering to all whites as Anglos. Why? Because I’m of Irish descent, and “Anglo” refers to the British. I’m not mad at the Brits, but given Anglo-Irish history, I’m not thrilled at being identified constantly by one of their historical terms.
Don’t ban language. If you don’t like the word “nigga” being used in music, don’t buy those products. If you think kids use this word too much, maybe explain to them what it really means. Because if you ban “nigger,” it will be the first step to ignoring that word’s history. And that is something we as a society can never afford to do.