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

Wilson Gray hwgray at GMAIL.COM
Fri Dec 7 23:38:16 UTC 2012

On Fri, Dec 7, 2012 at 6:06 AM, Damien Hall <damien.hall at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Damien Hall <damien.hall at NEWCASTLE.AC.UK>
> Subject:      Use of 'nigger' by white man to black man ruled not abusive by UK
>               court
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Wilson and I said:
>> the customary _rule_ in the US whereby a black person _may_ address another as 'nigger' / 'nigga'
> "Customary"? "Rule"? "May"? Surely, that is not what you intend to say!
> ========================
> Well, like Dave Chappelle's complainers, I shouldn't pretend to authority, being white, and British at that (and I don't).  Still, I should have said that _certain black people may address certain friends of theirs as 'nigger' / 'nigga', in the right circumstances_, which is correct, isn't it? I'm grateful for the clarification.

"Black people address friends and even acquaintances by the Magic Word
- just kidding! - in the right circumstances."

Chappelle once qualified himself "as a nigger whiisays 'nigger' a
lot." That's also true of Obama. But, as, well, "social conservatives"
delight in pointing out, for some reason that is entirely opaque to
me, the sound pattern of the President's speech varies according to
his audience. The same is true of my speech-habits. Why would anyone
expect that not to be naturally the case? When you grow up having
internalized that those who control your life consider your natural
style of speech to be a joke, then you don't speak to those people
using your natural speech, if you can possibly avoid it.

BTW, thank you for not using :African-American."

> 'In this case, I think that the British court made a serious error in
> accepting that incredibly-fanciful defense. defense.judges erred
> seriously, from the American point of view. A black person in any
> country anywhere would not address a random black stranger come upon
> in the public way as "nigger" any more than a member of that court
> would address a random white stranger as, e.g. "cocksucker," in that
> circumstance.'
> Having lived in the US, and in an _African American_ neighbourhood at that, I thought I had a little more insight into this than your average white Brit, and certainly more than your average, probably older and white, North Staffordshire magistrate; but there's always a lot missing if you're not a long-time member of a community, whether it's racial, local, both or what.

Well, it was nice while it lasted! ;-)

You have to grow uo black in the United States in order to have a full
understanding of the racial atmosphere. This is a claim that white
Americans are unable to understand. For a white person to claim to
"know" black people is like a male gynecologist claiming to "know" the
menstrual cycle or childbirth.

It's quite surprising really. No one who had never even been in the
military would claim to "know" combat, merely on the basis of his
having seen even hundreds of war movies.

Of course, the opposite can also be true. I once unthinkingly
commented to a Turkish friend of some 35 years standing that, when I
first met him, his truly-impressive command of English, combined with
his looks - dark complexion, very curly hair - had caused me to take
him for an as-is-defined-in-the-United-States black person, he was
"shaking to the core." The look of total astonishment on his face was
a marvel to behold. Clearly, that he might look like a black person in
the right circumstances was a possibility so improbable that it had
never occurred to him and he was simply unable to wrap his mind around
that concept.

Under similar circumstances, I once assumed that a newly-met
Melanesian was merely an ordinary black American, but from somewhere
strange, like Idaho, with a dialect trivially-distinct from what I'm
accustomed to hearing. In that case, no occasion arose for me to put
my foot into my mouth.

Usually, I can tell, with no trouble..

"Say, mon. (That's probably "marn" in British eye-phonetics. ;-)) Do
you notice anything different about the way that I talk?"
"Yeah, man. You sound like a West Indian."
"Everybody tells me that, mon. But I talk the same as everybody else."

His syntax was impeccable. His phonology, not so much.

> 'BTW, why did the court not simply ask the plaintiff whether what the
> defendant claimed was the truth? Why did the black man not object?
> After all, the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-niggers" defense is a
> further offense, to say the least.'
> These were my questions, too, but I haven't seen the case covered anywhere else, so I know no more about it than you do, now!  My reaction too was that this was an error of judgement by the court committed maybe by a magistrate who wanted to seem modern, forward-looking and not fuddy-duddy, but completely missed the target.
> It's probably relevant that magistrates in England and Wales don't have to have legal qualifications. There are two types of magistrate, both of whom may try certain types of cases, but only one of the types is usually qualified in the law; the other type is made up of retired people and others who have time during the week, and a social conscience, and they do the work voluntarily, which probably necessarily predisposes them to be a certain type of person. The article doesn't say which of the types of magistrate tried this particular case, but I'd be surprised if it was one of the qualified ones.  If you're interested:

So, in the ordinary American sense, this wasn't even a trial. Well,
that explains it, then. All has become clear.

As it happens, such magistrate courts also exist in the rural and/or
Southern United States, primarily for the purpose of extracting
ransom, called "fines," from outsiders who unwittingly contravene
local statutes specifically designed to catch outsiders. Sometimes,
the law has general application, in theory, but, in practice, it is
enforced against only those "from away." Mere knowledge of the local
environment - the locations of speedtraps and stopsigns, etc. - is
required for the job, for all practical purposes. Ofttimes, the fines
constitute a lucrative sideline for the magistrate or they may even be
his sole source of income.

> Thanks for answering, Wilson.
> Damien
> --
> Damien Hall
> Newcastle University (UK)
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

You're welcome, Damien. It was my honor.

All say, "How hard it is that we have to die!"---a strange complaint
to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
-Mark Twain

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list