Magic Words   Leave a comment

There’s a line in The Game of Thrones that I love. Tyrion the dwarf is talking to John Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, about the word “bastard”. Today, we know that word as a swear for someone who is a jerk, cruel, abusive, etc., but in former times, it meant an illegitimate child. Tyrion notes he’s called Imp by those same men.

“It’s only a name. If someone calls you a name, make it your own and then they have no power to hurt you with it.”

On June 24, local radio host Michael Dukes used the word “nigger” on his show. He was quoting Paula Deen, the food maven who famously lost her sweet gig for having used that word decades before. Yeah, Paula Deen was born in 1947, which means that she was a young adult in the South prior to the Civil Rights movement. I’m not surprised that she used the word “nigger” in the past. It was a common word for black people in her culture. Has she used it lately? I doubt it. In fact, I would hazard to theorize that she has not used a racial slur more recently than our president has.

Michael Dukes was reporting on the case and discussing freedom of speech. He called it the “n-word” several times before a caller called in and said the actual word. I couldn’t tell the race of the caller, but he actually brought up the use of the term “nigga” in rap music. It was at that point that Michael Dukes stopped pussy-footing around and used the actual word “nigger”.

A few days later, the following letter to the editor ran in our local newspaper.

It was a clear attempt to embarrass the sponsors of the Michael Dukes Show into dropping their advertising. I hope they don’t do that.

Black people have followed a fine tradition of taking the sting out of a slur by claiming it for themselves. Christians did similarly centuries ago. When people started using the term “Christian” it was a slur to try and demean those who believed in following Jesus Christ rather than the Greek and Roman gods. It was first used in Gentile regions. Christians took the name for themselves and took the power of the word away from those who would wield it as a weapon.

Later, Catholics used the term “anabaptist” to describe and demean those who did not believe in baptizing infants, holding instead to believer’s baptism, which infants are incapable of. Those who rejected infant baptism took the term for their own name and became Baptists. So much for the slur having power over them.

Words do not have a magical ability to make us less than what we are inherently. The only power words have are what we give them. Black people took that power away from white people when they started using the term “nigga” to describe one another. Good for them. Tyrion the Imp would approve.

The power of the word “nigger” remains only so long as we continue to grant it power. I’m not saying white people should use it to describe black people. I am saying that we should stop all the reverse racist bullshit that insists that it’s fine for black people to call each other “nigga”, but it’s  career destroying in 2013 if a Southern white person said “nigger” back in 1968.

And, by the way, if you want to call me a “red skin”, go for it. Fairbanks Alaska is having one of the longest stretches of hot sunny weather that I can remember and the other day, my husband noted that I indeed have a reddish-brown hue to my skin. I’m not sunburned. My tan simply has a reddish undertone. So I emailed several of my cousins who are as much Wyndake as I am and asked them about their tanning habits.

We’re “red skins”. There’s no pain in that because we take the description as our own and take all of its power away.

Can we stop giving magical power to words now?

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