Use of 'nigger' by white man to black man ruled not abusive by UK court

Damien Hall damien.hall at NEWCASTLE.AC.UK
Wed Dec 5 10:34:15 UTC 2012

This morning's UK _Metro_ (Newcastle edition) contains a story about a court case in which a (43-year-old) white man had been accused of racial abuse for shouting 'nigger' at a black man in the street.  His defence was that he is a hip-hop fan, has more black friends than white friends, and: 'This is just how I speak. I am not a racist. It was used as slang. I can be sat with a black friend and I will say "What's up, nigger?" and it's a term of endearment.'  The court accepted the defence.

(The _-r_ ending on 'nigger', and the spelling "What's up?", are as printed in the newspaper - but they still can't actually print 'nigger', writing both 'n****r' and 'n-word'.)

What's sociolinguistically interesting to me about this is that the customary rule in the US whereby a black person may address another as 'nigger' / 'nigga', but a white person may not, doesn't seem to apply in this case.  The part of the country where the case happened - North Staffordshire - is not a big urban centre, so I don't know whether that rule does apply in places where there is a larger black population, but it certainly doesn't seem universal.  Another relevant thing is probably that magistrates are likely to be older and probably white, regardless of the makeup of the community, so the people who ruled on this case may not have been aware of prevailing norms among younger people in any case.  Maybe that makes it more noteworthy that they still ruled in the defendant's favour.

Still, with all these caveats, interesting, I thought.



Damien Hall
Newcastle University (UK)

The American Dialect Society -

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