“The N Word” (Again)

I recently watched a BBC documentary investigating racism in the Metropolitan Police in the 1970s. A black activist recalled the abuse black people endured in Britain, at the time. He said “You’d get called Paki, Coon, the N word…” 

It is acceptable, it seems, for a Black activist to say “Paki” and “Coon”, shockingly vile, racist terms, when testifying to his experience of racism. However, even when quoting those who persecuted him, even he feels unhappy with using “the N word.” All three words seem equally offensive, so what is the difference? 

Meanwhile, Adam Habib, the director of SOAS and himself a person of colour, had to apologise for using “The N word” while discussing complaints made by students about the use of this word by lecturers, who were, themselves, quoting (I think!)[1]

So, if I’ve got this right, Mr Habib has had to apologise for referencing a quotation, by a 3rd party, of the use of the “The N word” by a 4th party. This is an astonishing situation. A reference to a quotation of a racist utterance shouldn’t offend anyone. It is at two removes. And the original racism needs to be addressed, doesn’t it? We can’t ignore it because it’s unpleasant. Should we not address offensive issues at all, for fear of making our interlocutors confront difficult issues and thereby feel momentarily less than blissfully sunny? Should we forget or deny the Holocaust because it’s an unpleasant idea?

Defining your mood or state of mind at any time is incredibly difficult. It is a subtle and nuanced experience, almost liquid in its mutability and governed by a myriad of factors each of which exerts an influence that blooms and diffuses through the others to create an incredibly complex mix that is (probably) unique to you, and changes from moment to moment. 

And, while many of these influences are external, many are internal. You can manage your mood, decide how you’re going to react to things.

People are perfectly capable of “quoting” “the N word” with malicious intent, but this will be immediately obvious. (There’s no point in being offensive if nobody notices.) However, if someone uses this word in reference or when quoting, sincerely and with probity, they are not responsible for your momentary emotional reaction to it. You do not have the right to silence other people to preserve your fragile and overly-sensitive state of mind. It is not the duty of other people to spoon feed you bliss. You have to take responsibility for your own emotional state.  

[1] “SOAS Students Call for Director to Resign Over Use of the N Word”, The Guardian, 12/03/21

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