Sunday, October 01, 2006

Politics and the “N” Word: The Politics of the “N” Word

In this upside-down world we live in what one said or did 30 years ago is often more important than what one said or did yesterday. We have a way of obscuring important things with trivialities, blowing them up to resemble real issues when in fact they are meaningless.

Case in point: The Senatorial race in Virginia between Republican incumbent George Allen and Democrat challenger James Webb. There are other issues, but the one that seems to be the most prevalent is if and when either or both candidates said the “N” word.

The “N” word is an interesting cultural phenomenon. Hardly anything short of murder or rape or raising gasoline prices is a more serious transgression than saying, or having said, the “N” word. Certainly, such terms should be avoided as a matter of good manners, and now that the “N” word has become the subject of such broad and deep public disapproval you risk your life if you say it. But it can’t hurt to gain a little perspective about that word and it’s place in the American lexicon.

The term has been around since the days of the Revolutionary War. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary: “The Spanish word negro originates from the Latin word niger, meaning black. In English, negro or neger became negar and finally nigger, most likely under influence of French nègre.” So, it’s not the derivation of the word that is a problem; it’s the application of the word as a pejorative term. However, the “N” word has not always been a racial slur, as is the common perception.

As a youngster growing up in southern West Virginia in the late 40s, 50s and early 60s, the “N” word was not an uncommon one. And, yes, its use was often derogatory, but not always, and perhaps not even most of the time. It was a common term for blacks that was common enough that no one thought much about it.

It wasn’t a word I used often, or that most people that I knew used often. But it was a fairly common word. I used it in a negative way to describe blacks that exhibited certain unacceptable behavior, in the same way that I used the term “white trash” to describe white people who behaved in an unacceptable way. Using the “N” word then didn’t make me a racist then, and using it 40 years ago doesn’t make me a racist now.

Neither does it make George Allen or James Webb racists. Even calling a guy from the opposition campaign “macaca” doesn't make George Allen a racist. It means that he was thoughtless, perhaps, but not a racist.

We’ve got to grow up and stop focusing on trivial things, trying to brand someone for all time over something they did in their youth. There is a lot of time, energy and emotion wasted on such absurdities, all of which could be far better utilized on things that really matter.

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