Privilege breeds ignorance: why Piers Morgan is wrong about the N-word

2014-11-12 15:40

It’s quite unfortunate that privilege breeds so much ignorance. The ignorance is obvious when the privileged stand on platforms and bark at the disadvantaged: "You’re part of the problem; pull yourselves up!” Such victim-blaming that is wrought solely by ignorance and privilege.

We see this in men who say, “If women do not want to be raped, they must not wear revealing clothes.” Or white Americans claiming, “If black men do not want to be killed by police, they must not behave like thugs.” We saw it recently in Piers Morgan’s column on the Mail Online, "If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves”.

It is commonplace among the privileged. First, they separate themselves from the problem. This is the “I am not racist but…” paradigm. Second, they claim to be engaged in “objective” commentary in the interest of public discourse, while sliding in abrasive comments about how victims are responsible for their own disadvantage. Morgan did this in his comments about the N-word. “I don’t use it; would never use it,” he claimed.

Often, when these privileged White Knights are called on their ignorance and privilege, they cry poo-poo and then go on the offensive. They start throwing phrases like the “race card”. Morgan did this too; he tweeted, “Is it what I wrote that offended, #BlackTwitter – or the skin colour of the man who wrote it? #NWord

Here is a somewhat longwinded answer to Morgan’s question, which I hope he will take as a learning opportunity.

Words have meaning only in the context within which they are used. The word “nigger” is not any different. In fact, “nigger” – as Morgan should know – derives from the Spanish and Portuguese word “niger,” meaning “black”. But there is more to "nigger" than the colour black.

The word was transformed in the United Stated and in Europe by a painful history of slavery and oppression of black people. ESPN host Skip Bayless aptly called the word, “the most despicable word in the English language, [a] verbal evil”. The word is loaded with imagery of slavery, of mobbing, lynching and Jim Crow. It is a tell-tale of the agonising reality of black life in America.

The question Morgan did not bother to ask is how the word made the jump from being a term of violence against black people to a common (if not popular) term in the black American lexicon.

The transition of the word “nigger” from a term used to inflict racial, economic and political violence on black people to a natural term among blacks is one of the most curious phenomena in black American history. The transition was neither random nor was it an internalisation of violence. Instead, it was one of many tools used by black Americans to revolt against a violent and oppressive system.

Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long traces the varying uses of the term by newly freed slaves. On one end, the term was used to refer to blacks that are slavish or dependent on white people. On the other end, and more important for our purposes, the term described the condition of black people in America.

Litwack tells the story of an elderly black woman whom a sympathetic Missionary rebuked for using the term “niggers” to refer to freed slaves. She responded, “We are niggers…. We always [were] niggers, and we always shall be; nigger here, and nigger there, nigger do this, and nigger do that. We’ve got no souls; we are animals. We are black and so is the evil one.”

Even today, in 21st century America, the elderly woman’s words ring true. The word “nigger” – whether used by whites as a slur or by blacks as “term of endearment” – is a blunt reminder of the black circumstance in America. To understand this, look at the black people who use “nigger” and those who cull the term. It is the wealthy and privileged blacks like Oprah Winfrey and Reverend Al Sharpton versus disadvantaged blacks in city slums and ghettos that are marred by violence and poverty.

What about the hip-hop culture, some may ask. While rappers become wealthy, their roots are often in the ghettos of the inner city. The content of their music serves that demographic. Rapper 50 Cent (Curtis Jackson) often reminds us why he still picks fights (beefs) with other rappers despite his staggering wealth: “to be relevant you have to assimilate the culture”.

As an instance of privilege, Morgan does not have address the multiple meanings of the term to black folks. He neither has to address the dichotomy of meaning nor the intricacies of nuance. The only meaning he attaches to the word is the one ascribed by the English dictionary. He calls the word an “a grotesque, odious, evil stain on the English language.” Do you think the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary ever asked a black person what “nigger” means. I would bet my Harvard tuition that they haven’t.

Morgan in his critique does not address the underlying condition of blackness in America. He is not concerned with economic exclusion or subjugation by a racist and classist system. Instead, he is engaged in what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham termed “respectability politics”. His true purpose is to shame black people into assimilating white society. Blacks, by Morgan’s logic, would not have to suffer the indignity of being called “niggers” if they “killed” the term.

Morgan is hallucinating about a world where black people could simply walk away from the word “nigger”. And he can do that because he is not burdened by history. More importantly, he is not burdened by the reality crafted by that history.

Morgan is not alone. Look for example at what one (black) Fox News columnist thinks: “Certainly, President Obama and Mrs. Obama would not accept it if one of their daughters referred to the other as “my nigga”.” To her, and I imagine to others like Morgan, for black people to quickly reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, they must assimilate the Obamas.

On the contrary, nobody demands that whites should assimilate the Clintons. No. Because whites have individuality, which blacks lack. As Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it, “To prevent enabling oppression, we demand that black people be twice as good. To prevent verifying stereotypes, we pledge to never eat a slice a watermelon in front of white people.”

So, to Piers: No, the outrage has nothing to do with the colour of your skin. You are simply wrong, if not utterly ignorant. It is your ignorance and arrogance about your ignorance that are offensive.

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