N.B.: racial slurs and homo-/transphobic slurs are used for demonstration and explanation in this article.
As children and teenagers we hear often enough that words do not just have meaning: they can also hurt, although some songs and stories may claim the opposite. If you’re lucky, you’ll experience little of the negative power that words can have and see mostly the good that words can do, but unfortunately there are plenty of people who have experienced, and still will experience that some words hurt. Of course, words don’t necessarily harm or work in a positive way – there are plenty of influential words and plenty of less influential words in the world, as there are plenty of influential and less influential people in the world.
There are certain words and terms among the powerful words with a negative meaning that have been heavily debated over the last decade, or even longer. These forms are derogatory words that have been used to insult people who belong to certain groups or minorities. These words are categorized as racial slurs or homophobic or transphobic slurs, and include words such as “nigger”/”nigga”, “faggot”, “dyke”, “queer”, “tranny”, “slut” and so forth.
The debate mostly involved the discussion of whether these words should be used or avoided, or whether their meaning should be changed, and furthermore, if these slurs can be used – who is allowed to use them. To some people it is obvious that if you belong to a group that has used a slur against another group, you immediately lose the right to use that word ever again – even if you no longer intend to offend with it.
As an example for the arguments used in the debates I will discuss the usage of the n-word. When listening to rap music, there is a large chance that you will hear at least one or two songs in which the rappers use the n-word to describe themselves, their friends or other people around them. Quite some fans of this genre pick up aspects of the language that rappers use, and inherently, they might start using the n-word. The result is a discussion: is using the n-word acceptable or not?
Fact is that there is not just a consensus within these groups on the usage of a word. You will for instance find the opinion of those who agree with talk show host Oprah, who discussed the matter with rapper Jay-Z on her show. In her opinion, people, no matter whether they are black or white, should not use the n-word at all. The colonial history that the word has, the background of oppression the word comes from, makes it a word with so much power that there is no justifying the use of it. Furthermore, using the word, especially as a black person, can give others the idea that it is actually acceptable to use a derogatory form. To quote Tina Fey’s character in the Mean Girls movie on a similar matter: [to the female students] “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
Jay-Z disagreed with her. He believed that with eradicating a certain word from a language we do not solve a problem, the problem lies deeper than just the meaning of a word. By claiming the word, however, he says, we strip the power it has been given from it and give it a new, empowering meaning. That does not mean that white people are allowed to use it. As the n-word was/is used by white people as a derogatory slur, and as white people are very privileged compared to black people, white people have lost the privilege to use this very word.
Of course, there are people who do not care who uses the n-word or not. Tyler the Creator, a rapper, shared his view on the use of the n-word in an interview, and he does not really care who uses the word or not. In his opinion, the word has a whole different meaning nowadays, and he does not place so much importance on language and the meaning of language. In the end, he claims, a lot is context-dependent as well. Some people may accept a word such as the n-word, while others may find it funny, and there are people who may find it offensive. Tyler says, however, that he does not have an opinion on the hateful derogatory use, as it has never happened to him.
All three, the ones who want to abolish the word, the ones who want to (re)claim the word and abolish the old, derogatory meaning and the ones who do not really care, make an interesting argument in the discussion that can be applied to many of the words that are considered derogatory.
In the end, I feel like the decision lies mostly with the people against whom the word has been used. As a white person, you cannot really decide what is racist towards a person of colour, as a straight person you cannot decide what is homophobic or transphobic towards a LGBTQ-person, and as a man you cannot decide what is sexist towards a woman. But I do think that all people have at least some emphatic capacities that make them able to estimate what might hurt or offend others, and it may be time to consider the usage of this ability more often.
Header image courtesy of hercampus.com