My 15 year-old son tells me he’s pretty sure that, in a few years, the N-word will lose its negative connotation. He bases his belief on the way the word is used in his high school, among kids of all races and backgrounds, but mostly among African-Americans, who feel comfortable utilizing it in a totally different manner than its traditional, abhorrent use.
I find my son’s theory hard to believe. The word is so entrenched in our culture as an unconscionable insult and has been charged with hatred for so long, that I just can’t imagine it somehow shedding it’s vileness. However, as I listen to the hip-hop music my son favors and watch shows like The Wire, which seems to be accurate in its portrayal of the vernacular of Baltimore’s inner city gangs, I do understand what he means. The hip-hop guys, as well as the Baltimore inner city kids, use the word freely in a non-insulting manner.
In a situation with some similarities, an event took place a few days ago commemorating the first anniversary of the death of Canadian artist and poet ManWoman, who had been trying to “take back” the swastika since the 1960’s. During the event, tattoo parlors around the world offered free swastika tattoos to the public, not as anything to do with the Nazis, but on the contrary, as part of a campaign to “reclaim” the symbol, which for thousands of years served as a Hindu and Buddhist sign of luck, peace, and strength before Adolf Hitler appropriated it as the symbol of the German Nazi Party. Jewish groups were predictably (and perhaps understandably) outraged.
Can symbols like the swastika and words like the N-word be “reclaimed”? If, as Theunis Bates indicates in his article on The Week, only the victims of offensive words and symbols have the right to reclaim them, will those victims ever do so? It seems that at least some sectors of the African-American community are doing exactly that. I don’t see anything of the sort going on with Jews and the swastika. But maybe at some point it will, since it seems to me that wresting the evil away from a formerly benign symbol would effectively countermand its nefarious appropriation. Imagine if, in our grandchildren’s history books, the swastika would be described as a Hindu and Buddhist sign of luck, peace and strength, temporarily and illegitimately appropriated by the Nazis as a symbol of the opposite.
I don’t know if the N-word will ever become an inoffensive part of our mainstream vocabulary, and I don’t know if the swastika will ever symbolize anything other than hatred. But I do hope both things happen someday. Because words and symbols have no power unless we bestow it upon them, and what we can bestow, we can remove. If those victimized by the N-word and the swastika are somehow able to sap their evil, then maybe we would be closer to having moved on from those particular atrocities, and the heinous connotations of that word and of that symbol would become relics of a bygone era.