Monday, 12 May 2014

The N word

So Jeremy Clarkson becomes the latest in a long line of white guys in the public eye, to utter the unutterable. Or should I say, to mumble it. To the sin of racism is added the sin of a lack of conviction. I don’t know if that makes things better or worse.

People have since come out in defence of Clarkson, saying he might be prone to using shock value, or that he might simply be a bit of an idiot, but he’s not a racist. And he probably isn’t, at least no more than the average person. Certainly saying a word is not on the same level as a so-called hate crime, or even, say, discrimination when hiring a job applicant. One question in all of this is: how bad is it really to make racial slurs? I understand that Clarkson, being in the public eye, has a certain standard of behaviour to uphold, and that the BBC had a responsibility to promote fairness and denounce racism where it can. Therefore it’s understandable that they took some sort of action over this, and we can expect Clarkson to tread carefully with his ‘final warning’ status. Should he have been sacked? If he was the presenter of a less-popular show, would he have been sacked? Perhaps clearer policy needs to be written.

From my point of view, I am still not sure which approach is best when it comes to the N word, and I have given it some thought. As a private individual, I can certainly be more free and easy in my approach to the dreaded word.

Now, one approach to the word is that it cannot be used at all. This is an understandable line to take for those in the public eye and representing companies like the BBC, but let’s be honest, a blanket ban on any word is never going to be effective in the private sphere. With language, as with anything, simple prohibition is ineffective. In fact, it often has the opposite effect than intended.

What about the ‘rule’ which says that if you are not black, you can’t say the word. This I find curious, as it seems to me to be inherently racist to decree that one set of people can say a word based on the colour of their skin, and another group cannot. Nonetheless, I can see why white people would choose to follow this rule, given the nature of the word and the sensitivity surrounding it. But who owns words? In this case, perhaps the rule is often followed more out of respect or professional good sense than the position of the speaker in question.

Part of the ‘problem’, if you can call it that, is the lack of an equivalent word for whites, and the relatively recent mature of the events which the word calls to mind. Slavery and racism have existed throughout history, and I’d wager that every ‘race’ has been on both the giving and receiving end of these actions as some point or other. However, there has been no recent white slave trade, no word which carries anything like the emotional intensity which the N word calls to mind. If there were, it would also be a no-no for BBC presenters, of this I am certain.

Another approach is to allow the word free reign, to rob it of its power by repeating it so often that it becomes meaningless, or until the meaning transmutes into something else entirely. There is precedent for the meaning of a word to change, and in fact this might be desirable. Not that this would remove any of the history or obscure the suffering which occurred, but rather it might help us to move forward without the distractions of controversy, so that where issues of racism occur, they are dealt with rationally and quickly.

The ‘reclaiming’ of the word has been occurring for some years now, primarily by black musicians and comedians. But, despite the ubiquity of the word in various forms of entertainment, the edge remains. As a white man, the fact is that I cannot truly appreciate the word, cannot understand the feelings it evokes. But then, you might say that of anyone, no matter what colour, who lives in modern Britain and has never been enslaved. I think that the power of the word is that it underlines more than the history is suggests; it speaks to attitudes and divisions still present in many countries today. As a white man, it might be hard for me to understand and appreciate these attitudes. And I may have to accept that the word is just one I cannot justifiably utter. But it would be sad to see the emotion around the word prevent any true debate about the underlying issues, as it is only by exposing the issues that the people of Britain, regardless of colour, can hope to address and overcome them.

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