The reclamation of slurs, part 2: the N-word

Image by Josien Vogelaar
Image by Josien Vogelaar
Eva Geerdink (redacteur)
Eva Geerdink (redacteur) • 15 jun 2022

It may sound a bit strange, using an insult as a badge of pride. Today it is known, however, as a process called ‘reclamation’. A means by which marginalised group members consciously label themselves with words once used to hold them down. Doing this allows a sense of ownership of the self, something that's lost after facing years of oppression and prejudice. As a result, some slurs (partly) lose their negative meanings. In this three-part series I will explore how discriminating language evolves through time. To show you that language in general is not rigid, but continuously adapts to our changing views of others. This second article covers the N-word, as an example of racist slurs.

When visiting Dutch warehouse stores or supermarkets in the past, you might have come across a package of chocolate-coated marshmallows called ‘Negerzoenen’, which literally translates to ‘Nigger Kisses’. The delicacy was introduced in the Netherlands around a hundred years ago, when there was not much controversy about the term ‘nigger’ circulating within Europe. In 2006, however, the name simply changed to ‘Zoenen’ (‘Kisses’), as around this time more and more people started to find the slur offensive.

The example above mirrors how society’s view on Black people has changed over the last few centuries. Today, the term ‘nigger’ is considered so deeply obscene that many people who are not Black do not even dare to say or write it. Instead they shorten it to ‘the N-word’, which I will also do in this article. Since recent times, however, Black people seem eager to reclaim the word among themselves. By doing this, they try to leave a painful past behind. A past in which the N-word was used in a very negative way.

Nothing more than slaves
Unlike many other slurs, the N-word has undergone a unique change in meaning. While most slurs take on different meanings over time, such as bitch in my previous article, the N-word has always kept its literal definition. That is, it has always been used as a reference to Black people. However, what has changed over time is our emotional attachment to the word.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the N-word likely finds it origins in the late 1500’s, where the term was considered – believe it or not – a neutral term. It was used in the English language to refer to Black people from regions of Africa and Southern Asia, with no hostile intent. However, when a term is adopted to set apart a specific group of people, it will only be a matter of time until the word becomes derogatory.

And this is exactly what happened. Once the slave trade began, the N-word was quickly equated to inferiority. The term became synonymous for ‘slave’, notes professor of History Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor. She states: "A nigger was the property of Whites, she was black, her bondage was hereditary, and it lasted in perpetuity." It is during this time period that Black people were considered and treated as mere animals, without any rights and minds of their own.

Yet, the derogation of the N-word reached its peak during the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, according to professor of Linguistics Jacquelyn Rahman. When many Blacks found freedom and entered the competitive (American) job market, Whites felt threatened. So much in fact, that the N-word began to serve as a reminder for all, that Black people were still the lowest of the low, despite the freedom they finally began to experience. It is not until the Civil Rights Movement that the term started to become more taboo.

From ‘Nigger’ to ‘Nigga’
In other words, the N-word is strongly tied to a long history of racism and discrimination. Therefore, the slur is considered very offensive in today’s society. Yet, the N-word has been partly reclaimed from its sordid past, notes Rahman. In fact, many Blacks now use the term to indicate brotherhood and commonality within their group. However, in doing this the term is generally spelled as ‘nigga’ instead of ‘nigger’. Such as ‘That is my nigga’. As a means to show that there are two distinct uses of the N-word. One that expresses endearment and one that is associated with slavery.

Although not all Blacks are content with the use of ‘nigga’ within their community, the word finds considerable acceptance. For many, ‘nigga’ is a remembrance of strength, and a claim to legitimacy and independence. As a result, the term has become more mainstream through the years. Like bitch, it can often be heard in the Hip-Hop scene and in tons of Rap songs. Sometimes though, ‘nigga’  becomes so mainstream that even people who are not Black use it. Which is often viewed as problematic by Black people. For instance, when Jennifer Lopez used the term in her 2001 hit song “I’m Real” she received a lot of backlash.

Nevertheless, I find it amazing to see how a word that once provoked such violence can be changed to a word of brotherhood and friendship, by the very same people that were sought to oppress. It gives me hope for the future. Who knows, maybe at one point in time the N-word will mainly function as a term of empowerment within the Black community.

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