Since a video surfaced which may have shown Jeremy Clarkson using the N word, the ‘right’ to use a word which O.J. Simpson’s prosecutor, Christopher Darden, described as “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language” has been heavily debated.
Thousands of commenters on news stories about Clarkson have said things like “If he were a rapper then there would be no problem”. A lot of people have claimed that it is “not fair” that Jeremy Clarkson is being chastised for arguably using the word, but black rappers face no criticism.
It’s also “not fair” that minstrel shows used the N word and blackface makeup to reduce black people to caricatures. It’s “not fair” that in the eighteenth century, white people used the science of ‘N***erology’ to prove the inferiority of black people. It’s “not fair” that there are a disproportionate amount of black people in prison. It’s “not fair” that someone of an ethnic minority can’t get a job without being accused of being a token. It’s “not fair” that BME people are constantly negatively stereotyped in the media. It’s “not fair” that ethnic minorities feel like they can’t move to certain areas of the country because of racism and hostility.
It is not acceptable for white people to use it in a lighthearted way, or in a way which doesn’t acknowledge the word’s cultural weight. Yes, black rappers use it all the time, but not in an ignorant way. It has been re-appropriated in an attempt to rid it of the horrible connotations it picked up during years of slavery. 2Pac redefined the N word as “Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished”, and Jay Z has stated that hip hop artists have “turned a word which was very ugly and hurtful into a term of endearment.”
This word has come to be a sign of emancipation and pride, in the same way that the homosexual community uses “queer”. When it comes from a black person, it is a sign of strength. A “F**k you” to all those who see them as different or inadequate or sub-human.
In the mouth of a white person, the word is only ever going to bring back painful memories. Jabari Asim, author of The N Word, describes n***er as “convenient shorthand for racist and violent sentiment”. Jeremy Clarkson possibly saying “catch a n****er by its toe” seems harmless to anyone living in denial of the west’s history of racism, but for other people it echoes the cries of “Kill every damn n***er in town!” and “Lynch the n***ers!” heard during Atlanta race riot.
Langston Hughes perfectly described the power behind the N word when he said that “the word n***er, you see, sums up for us who are coloured all the bitter years of insult and struggle.” Oprah Winfrey said that when someone uses the N word she thinks of all the black people who were lynched, and that n****er would have been the last word they ever heard. To dismiss it as “just a word” which anyone should be allowed to use is to deny the history of racism in the western world.
Instead of raising the question of how modern racism can be dealt with, the Jeremy Clarkson incident has just given ignorant people a platform to debate the ‘right’ to use one word. If white people want the ‘right’ to use a word which Jabari Asim says has been used to “systematically dehumanise an entire race”, then they should be prepared to help fix the racism that still exists in the west. Until the people complaining that Jeremy Clarkson should not be criticised are prepared to actively try to do something about entrenched racist attitudes, then they just have to deal with the fact that it is not OK for white people to say n***er.
Whether or not Jeremy Clarkson actually said n***er is irrelevant. What is relevant is the fact that this controversy has, yet again, raised the question of why it is only ‘acceptable’ for certain people to use the N word. The question should not even have to be raised. The inability to use a word is a small price to pay after years of racial oppression and dehumanisation.