You, Me, and Every Word We Know

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I've never really understood why every other year, it seems, we need another debate over who can and can't use the word "nigger." But here we are in this time of "Whither Richie Incognito?" at it again. You can see me try to tease out some of that thinking in a column this Sunday for The Times. The logic, from my perspective, is fairly obvious and relies more on common sense than a Ph.D. in semiotics:

A few summers ago one of my best friends invited me up to what he affectionately called his “white-trash cabin” in the Adirondacks. This was not how I described the outing to my family. Two of my Jewish acquaintances once joked that I’d “make a good Jew.” My retort was not, “Yeah, I certainly am good with money.” Gay men sometimes laughingly refer to one another as “faggots.” My wife and her friends sometimes, when having a good time, will refer to one another with the word “bitch.” I am certain that should I decide to join in, I would invite the same hard conversation that would greet me, should I ever call my father Billy.

"Billy" is what my paternal grandmother and my Aunt Joyce (Dad's older sister) used to call him. Needless to say, I have never called my father "Billy." The idea that all language in all situations should be open to all people is preposterous, and would quickly destroy communication itself. Language depends on context and relationships. If you believe, as I do, that the relationship between black people is distinct, than it follows that their use of language would be distinct. 

But accepting black peoplehood has always been something of a problem in America, if only because it says that there are limits to white power, that running everything doesn't actually mean running everything. Specifically for the word "nigger," it means accepting something profound—that a group can take a word meant to mark them as pariahs, flip it, make it their own. Try to imagine Hester Prynne rocking the scarlet letter. But try to imagine something more—it's not just that "nigger" has become our own, it's that it's become a marker which says "We are different from you, because of you, and this can never be changed."

But again, this is not so original. I will never joke about a "white trash picnic." I like women. I will never be a woman. Because of that there's a whole range of communication which I will never partake in. (I often think about my reticence at calling myself a "feminist" in this light.) I love France and I love the French language. I will never be French. I will never be comfortable with the kind of self-deprecation and self-mockery which I heard French people employ when discussing their own country.

Communities are not simply about warmth, hugs and nice dinners. They are also about borders. I strongly suspect that were you to interrogate the history of communities who are seen as a problem by those in power—the Jews in Europe, women everywhere, the poor in 18th-century London—you would see a similar contentiousness over the borders (and perhaps even the names) which they claim as their own.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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