Over the weekend we came across one of those stories that leave us dumbstruck with outrage, and this one had nothing to do with President Donald Trump. It starts at a high school in Wisconsin where a black security is repeatedly called a “nigger” by a black student, at last warns the student “don’t call me nigger,” and ends with the security guard getting fired for violating the school district’s zero-tolerance policy regarding employees’ use of that word.
“Nigger” is indeed an awful word, and we don’t doubt that the school district was well intentioned in its efforts to banish it, but it’s permanently a part of the language and sometimes necessary to address its awfulness. We’d feel less than forthright if we were to euphemize the student’s language as “the n-word,” and we’re sure that any savvy high school security guard knows he would sacrifice all his street cred if he ddid the same. Go ahead and fire any school district employee who hurls the racial epithet against another human being, but c’mon, give a brother who’s taking a stand against it a break.
These “n-word” controversies have been occurring for decades now, and there always something sadly ridiculous about them. Back in the ’70s Mel Brooks had a hit with a western spoof called “Blazing Saddles” repeated the word dozens of times, always getting a hearty laugh from audiences that understood he was mocking the people who talked that way, but the movie is largely out of circulation and wouldn’t be made in this day and age. Most school districts ban Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” because of its constant use of the word, even though it’s one of America’s greatest works of literature and ranks with Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” as the nation’s most compelling anti-racism novels. Never mind a certain masterpiece by the great Joseph Conrad that has the word right in the title.
America’s always vibrant low culture has had similar controversies. The “hip-hop” subculture that sprang out of America’s ghettos and barrios and into the suburbs made great use of the term, although they pronounced and spelled it “nigga,” with the “gangsta rap” group calling itself Niggaz With Attitude making millions off it. It was arguably an effort to appropriate the word and use it as a term of respect and endearment, just as the Indiana Hoosiers and Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas Jayhawks use those old slurs as college nicknames, but we left that to our black friends and avoided use of the word. The fad seems to have faded, as fads tend to do, but there are still some black people who understandably take offense at the word even it has an “a” rather than a “er” at the end, and that security guard is apparently one of them.
We wish him well, and apparently most of his townsfolk do as well, so there’s hope he’ll be reinstated with a proper apology soon. Here’s hoping, too, that someday there won’t be any fuss about that awful word.
— Bud Norman