‘To which word are you referring dear?’ asked the elderly lady as she sipped her tea. Her young companion blushed red with embarrassment – or would have if her complexion had been lighter.
Well, what was I supposed to write? But in the current climate this is no laughing matter. Netflix has just fired its head of communications, Jonathan Friedland, over his use of the ‘N-word’. According to chief executive Reed Hastings, Friedland’s ‘descriptive use of the N-word on at least two occasions at work showed unacceptably low racial awareness and sensitivity’. The circumstances? A meeting with the public relations team to discuss the use of sensitive words in comedy. Good God!
I can understand that the ‘N-word’ is offensive to those of black or Afro-Caribbean heritage whose ancestors were the victims of the slave trade and subsequent racial prejudice; and that it should therefore be used with tact and sensitivity. So, for example, to say ‘her father was a ‘N’, or ‘some of my best friends are ‘Ns’, would be crass; whereas, the use of the term in an account of the history of civil rights in America, would be justified.
But I am puzzled why it is thought that banning or banishing the word ‘N’ and referring to it as ‘the ‘N-word’’, the latter effectively replacing the former in polite conversation, should be considered an improvement, as opposed to merely making things worse, and ‘stigmatising’ blacks even more.
When reference is made to the ‘N-word’, the forbidden word immediately resounds in our head together with all the negative connotations associated with it – connotations which banishing the word was supposed to suppress. Moreover, it is almost impossible not to conduct various thought experiments in one’s head, however momentary or involuntary, subliminal or unconscious, in the same way that we take perverse pleasure in indulging in all sorts of forbidden acts, conjure up all manner of shocking scenes in the privacy of our imagination. Who has not read – as part of our French literary education, you understand –Sade, or Octave Mirbeau, or Georges Bataille without a frisson of forbidden pleasure? Likewise, we imagine ourselves using the forbidden ‘N-word’, we substitute it for ‘black’, we imagine the outrage or embarrassment caused by its use, or non-use, in all manner of situations. For example, the child who asks us on a packed bus, in a loud voice, in Brixton, ‘Mummy, what is the ‘N-word’? Or the Any Questions panellist, who, asked to engage in earnest discussion of the prohibition, inadvertently blurts it out, or feigns ignorance and responds, ‘To what word are you referring, Mr Dimbleby?’ And we end up laughing at the absurdity of it all. Which, of course, defeats what was supposed to be the whole point of the exercise.
More seriously, ‘whites’ learn that when they are in the company of ‘blacks’ (specifically those blacks they suspect would have a heightened sense of past injustices, who have a strong sense of their ‘ethnicity’), they must tread very carefully so as not to cause offence, however inadvertent – for that is no defence. They must think before they speak, especially when they are speaking light-heartedly or engaging in banter. They must be aware that just as blacks are the victims of historical injustice, whites are the perpetrators who must make amends, the bearers of guilt who must atone for their sins. In which case, would it not be better (safer, certainly) to avoid the company of blacks altogether and associate with those of one’s own ethnicity, with whom one can relax and have a laugh without fear of being accused of a racially aggravated hate crime? I wonder how many whites have suffered a sinking feeling on learning that their new colleague was black or Muslim? Not because they were racist, but because they would now forever be tip-toing around, unable to lower their guard for a moment.
I have seen the whole atmosphere of a room change when a black person entered – a person who was to give a talk about diversity and prejudice, no less. The assembled whites fell silent, terrified they would say the wrong thing or use the wrong word. Laughter and good-humour gave way to platitudes and banalities. Suddenly the floor was strewn with eggshells, not innocuous eggshells, but ones that were booby-trapped. And the worse thing is that the visitor must have been aware of the frigid atmosphere: that the whites, those historic perpetrators of injustice, unconsciously irredeemably racist, were all on their guard. All this in the name of diversity!
Perhaps we should ban the expression ‘the ‘N-word’’. But then we would have no term with which to designate what we are banning. And could therefore not ban it. Then there is no way of separating justified from unjustified uses of the term, especially when the prohibition applies only to whites. What if the term is being used ironically? What if one is of mixed race? What if one uses the term ‘the ‘N-word’’ inappropriately? And what about all the other terms of abuse that have been levelled at different ethnic and racial groups through history? The ‘N-word’ is only one of many derogatory terms for blacks. Are the ‘C-word’ and the ‘W-word’ – I cannot bring myself to utter them – any less offensive? What of the choice terms of abuse levelled at Jews over the years? Have the Jews suffered less than the blacks? What of those terms that might cause offence but have generally been used affectionately, such as ‘Jocks’ for Scots – or should I say ‘the ‘J-word’’? The minefield is impassable.
Which all illustrates the stupidity of attempting to ban a word – any word. Like affirmative action, the effect of forbidding words deemed offensive is the precise opposite of that intended. A more effective means of fostering mutual suspicion and mistrust, racial division and segregation, than the forbidding of the ‘N-word’ is difficult to conceive.
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