nigger vs. negro (was: INDIAN vs. INJUN)

Mark A. Mandel Mark_Mandel at DRAGONSYS.COM
Thu Jan 11 16:26:52 UTC 2001

Arnold Zwicky <zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU> writes:

mark mandel:
 >For that matter, I once stayed for a week with the family of a white
 >man for whom "nigger" was simply the word for a {Black |
 >African-American | ...  } person, and he used it without pejoration
 >or insult. "Negro" wasn't in his vocabulary. This was in the summer
 >of 1966, in rural Kentucky near Corbin. There was certainly a lot of
 >racism in that region, but as far as I could tell there was none in


but there's the problem with "nigger".  no one, even in rural kentucky
in 1966, is so isolated as not to have come into contact with plenty
of speakers for whom the word is pejorative, indeed strongly so, so
that if you use the word you risk being misunderstood.  perhaps you
have a tin ear, and don't notice how other people use this word.
perhaps you are socially incurious and unobservant.  perhaps you are
resistant to change, to the point where your linguistic inertia is
stronger than your concern for being understood. perhaps you just
don't care if other people think you're talking pejoratively; *you*
know what you think.

but it's not *just* a matter of your continuing to use a word the way
you learned as a child.

I agree with you in general, and certainly concerning the kind of folks
(educated and in touch with a wider world) who are likely to be on this
list. But Taylor Smith was illiterate and had only been out of his home
region for two years, working in Chicago(?) in his youth, and maybe also a
stint in the Army. That might have widened his horizons somewhat; I think I
remember his talking about some of the good fellows he'd met in those days
who were "niggers". (That was also the only period in his life when he had
worn shoes. He invited me to stick a straight pin into his callused sole to
show how thick and hard it was.) If he knew the word "Negro" at all, it was
as an educated pronunciation as likely to be heard from a white racist
(perhaps a politician) as not-- or more likely, considering the prevalence
of racism there and then. So I think that, in that community, the
distinction between /'niy.grow/ and /'nig.R/ was one of education and
register, not of attitude.

I was 17 at the time and participating in a youth program of the Ethical
Culture Society called the Encampment for Citizenship. Our bi- or
multi-racial group was housed on a college campus for most of the summer,
but we lived with local residents for one week. One meeting we were in at a
local group or movement office of some kind, the adult counselors quietly
came in and told us to go out to the bus, staying together, looking
straight ahead, and not saying anything: some of the locals were angry at
the "niggerlovers" and were gathering outside. I mention this to provide
some social context. Taylor Smith (he must be long gone, God rest his soul)
had no problem with taking a Northern "niggerlover" -- as he did NOT call
us -- of a kid into his household.

-- Mark A. Mandel

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