Can Niggers Be Choosers?
Saturday, March 15, 2008
After soccer boss Irvin Khoza used of the word “kaffir”, some people demanded that the word be expunged from national discourse completely, while others have sought to confine use of the ‘K’ word to blacks only. In Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word Harvard Professor Randall Kennedy looks interestingly at the analogous American word. He concludes that the word should not be banned nor confined to use by black alone.
Instead, Kennedy suggests that, like all words, racial slurs take their true meaning from context. After Spike Lee objected to white colleague Quentin Tarantino’s use of “nigger” in his films, Kennedy countered that the Lee’s posture would “cast a protectionist pall over popular culture . . . [I]nstead of cordoning off racially defined areas of the culture and allowing them to be tilled only by persons of the ‘right’ race, we should work toward enlarging the common ground. . .”
Whites who use the word in its original sense as a racial slur, will face criticism and, in appropriate cases, legal action. But that hardly settles the vast, complex—and frankly more interesting—arena within which whites as well as blacks may use racial epithets in order to subvert racism rather than to practise it. A notable example here is Ed Young’s work, “Niggers Can’t Be Choosers”, which has numerous subversive and anti-racist implications, including Young’s protest against the cramped choice-lessness of any societally imposed “Nigger” status.
Well-meaning whites such as Young nevertheless undertake an enormous risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation when they use racial epithets, given the slumbering and unruly beast that is public discourse. They may find themselves crudely attacked by the uncomprehending, as indeed Young himself was in the pages of City Press.
Kennedy himself gives the related example of a well-meaning Michigan basketball coach who during a half-time pep talk ranked his racially mixed team (with their permission) into “niggers” or “half-niggers” using the term, as did his black players themselves, to mean “a person who is fearless, mentally strong and tough”. The team defended their coach, but the broader community did not. After word leaked out, he was fired. Mark Twain repeatedly deploys the word “Nigger” as part of his critique of racism in Huckleberry Finn and only cretins (albeit cretins aplenty) have called Twain racist.
Such risks are however certainly worth taking. Writing in The Nation last February 22, the African American cultural critic, Patricia J Williams, drew attention to the work curated under the banner “Legacies” by the New-York Historical Society and the Studio Museum, in which contemporary artists reflected on slavery. One work was a short film by artists Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. Williams explained: “It featured McCallum, who is white, and Tarry, who is black, configured as a ‘twinning doll’—a nineteenth-century toy that has two heads, one at each end of a common torso. At the doll’s waist is attached a long skirt or a cloak. Held vertically, the skirt falls and obscures one head. Flipped one way, it becomes a white doll. Turned upside down, the skirt falls the other way and suddenly it’s a black doll. In the film, McCallum and Tarry, joined at the waist by some feat of pixilated trickery and dressed in nineteenth-century clothing, flip head over head down a long dark marble corridor, first a white head, then a black head, first a white man, then a black woman, first a Thomas Jefferson, then a Sally Hemings. As they describe it, ‘the races are joined head to toe...continuously revealing and concealing one another.’”
We must be careful not to freeze the evolution of non-racial discourse by being overly panicked and too regulatory about the use of silly racial epithets.
Suresh says he earned two samoosas for this piece, one of which was consumed by editor Lizza Littlewort(h)