History and the Power of Words

I’m reposting from Rosina Lippi-Green’s webpage, English With and Accent. Her October 19th post discusses the n-word and a recent article by Janet Fuller (Southern Illinois University) in Popular Linguistics. Both Fuller and Lippi-Green help me to better understand how important our understanding of power relationships and history are in our choice of words, particularly how significant social history is when it comes to the meanings and uses of words, like the n-word. Both also remind me of Jane Hill’s book, The Everyday Language of White Racism, which also explains how social history has reinforced prejudice, not just in terms of linguistic prejudice and pejorative terms, but also in terms of economic prejudice. For example, Hill explains that one reason that there are such economic disparities between Blacks and Whites today is because Blacks, as a whole, were denied the opportunity to take part in the growth of national wealth from the inception of our country into the mid-20th century. On the other hand, for 300+ years Whites, as a whole, were not only able to participate in the wealth-making, but also to share the wealth. Today’s disparities are grounded in a 300-year jump start for Whites. I highly recommend Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism and Lippi-Green’s English with an Accent  if you want to understand how language plays a central role in racism.

At Popular Linguistics there’s an invited column with the title The Mysteries of the N-word which was written by Janet M. Fuller,  Director of Women’s Studies at Southern Illinois University/Carbondale. Fuller looks at the relative social value and impact of words which can be both utterly offensive and a signal of affection or approval, depending on context. She is writing about nigger, for the most part, but she also brings in other examples.
We can’t leave history out of it. Power relationships matter, and we can’t escape the history of white people having more power than black people in the United States. Even if particular white speakers are themselves not more powerful than the black people they are addressing, their use of ‘nigger’ would reference a power relationship with white people in a superior position – unless, of course, a close personal relationship trumps that dynamic. To make another parallel to gender, it’s quite different if adult women refer to their female friends as ‘girls’ and if a male boss refers to female employees as ‘girls’. The first is about solidarity — and, probably, wanting to tap into the positive associations of youth — and the second is about depicting the female employees as powerless and inconsequential, part of a faceless, gendered group.
This is the kind of essay you could hand to somebody who is having real trouble understanding the importance of context.  Or you could pass on a different story, which a friend told me some years ago and which has stuck with me whenever this subject comes up.
This friend has two teenagers, and she also has two elderly parents who live in rural (let’s say, Nebraska, but fill in the state of your choice here). Visiting with the kids, her parents were shocked and upset to hear their grandchildren use the f-word, and of course, they let my friend know how inappropriate and offensive they found this.
She said to them, “You know the way you feel when you hear them say fuck? That’s the way they feel when they hear you say nigger.”
And with that, they dropped the subject and never raised it again. I’ve never come across a better example of the potential shock value of context, which once in a while hits you over the head by letting you hear yourself with all filters stripped away.