May 31, 2006

"What up, Nick--?"

Last June in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens, New York, 19-year-old Nicholas "Fat Nick" Minucci beat black 23-year-old Glenn Moore with a baseball bat. Details are being hashed out in trial as to exactly what the sequence of events and motivations were: Moore admits he was in the neighborhood to steal cars, and Minucci and some friends claim that Moore tried to rob one of them, sparking the later baseball bat attack. But what's getting all the attention is that Minucci used "the N word" while beating Moore.

Or, perhaps just before: Minucci's version is that when Moore tried to rob him, he said "What up, n-----?" To the prosecutors, this means Minucci committed a hate crime that could get him sent up the river for years. The defense, however, are claiming that n------ is now heard so often that it is merely slang, and is no longer a "bad word."

The idea that Minucci's linguistic impropriety is more evil (and interesting) than the beating of anyone for any reason is one thing -- and a sad one, if you ask me (and for the record I am black). However, the defense's cute feint that n----- no longer carries a sting because it's all over rap albums and black men use it with each other is, well, b------- and they know it.

It's very simple. Long ago (and long before the 1980s, contrary to what many seem to think), black people and especially black men recruited n----- as an in-group term of endearment. It was a way of taking the sting from the slur. Today, the word signifies that said n----- is "one of us," no higher than the rest of us. N-----is a democratizer -- among black people.

Indeed, this means that white people are not allowed to call black people niggers (see, I can say it!). This is not difficult. This kind of thing happens in language. In Japanese, for example, instead of the meaning of a word varying with the situation, the word itself can. To give is AGERU if I give something to people, but it's KURERU if someone gives something to me -- but then if I give something to a high-placed person then I SASHIAGERU, and if a high-placed person gives something to me then they KUDASARU it to me.

Well, in English, when said by a white person to a black one n----- is an insult, while if black people use it among themselves, it's a term of endearment. Just as rank is the grand obsession of the Japanese (or at least used to be), race has been the grand obsession of America since the 1960s. Naturally, ceremonial linguistic rituals will arise on its basis, and internalizing them becomes part of the national identity.

When this goes as far as whites getting fired for even uttering the word in reference to it rather than actually wielding it, we have slid into the realm of senseless taboos of the sort that make remote tribal ones look so foreign to us. But the basic idea that a term is used only among groups corresponds neatly to universals of human social bonding and group definition.

If we all hear it "around" more lately, it's mostly on recordings of black men addressing and referring to one another. The rule nowadays even extends to other groups using n----- among themselves -- I have heard it used by Latino, Filipino and Asian teens. Okay. Among a new generation of hip-hop obsessed white kids, one even hears them using it with each other. But still, they cannot use it with a black person anymore than a Japanese person can AGERU something to the Emperor.

Minucci and his defense team would have it that if Minucci said "What up, n-----?" to Moore, then he was just using common slang like fella, or the Russian MUZHIK, which means peasant but is used affectionately to mean FELLOW or GUY rather like n----- is. That is, they want us to believe that n----- no longer carries any racial meaning, just as DUDE, now used among women as well as among men, is becoming gender-neutral.

I suppose that would be nice, but we aren't there yet, no matter how many hip hop albums younger white kids have heard, and no matter how much some of them may think of themselves as, on some level, black. Minucci broke the rules on how n----- is used — which is especially clear if he indeed used it repeatedly while beating Moore. Imagine him punctuating each blow with, say, "Pal! Pal! Pal!" A term of endearment? And even if it was just a single "What up, n-----?", them was fightin' words and Minucci and his defense know it very well.

Posted by John McWhorter at May 31, 2006 11:00 PM