Sunday, October 02, 2005

The dreaded n-word

'I thought that if I saw the word as a negative one, it would be the same as admitting we had not moved on since those days of racism. I said that people could call me "nigger" if they wanted but I was proud of the life I had made for myself and for my children, and so if that's what a nigger does, then thank you, that's what I was proud to be. I was still going to use the word; end of.'

So says Ashley Walters (aka Asher D of So Solid fame, and more recently star of the excellent British film, Bullet Boy) in an interview in today's Observer. But that's not the whole story; while making a programme for Channel 4 about racist language (Sticks and Stones, to be shown this Tuesday night), Walters' attitudes to the word underwent a massive change:

'I began to understand that you can't say that a word means one thing coming from black people's lips but has another meaning when it comes from a white person's. I didn't realise I was actually making it easier for the racists to use, but when that little boy said what he did, I felt that even though I didn't feel I was directly reinforcing and promoting racism, maybe I was part of the cycle. I suddenly felt guilty and wrong.'

But is Walters right when he claims the word can't have different meanings when spoken by different people? When we discuss this issue in class, most students (of whatever ethnic background) agree that the word means different things in different contexts and from different mouths. So why does Walters feel so differently? Is it part of an attempt by Walters to escape the background that he's been linked with: the itchy trigger-fingered sarf London ghetto hustler? Or is it a genuine re-assessment of language from a man who's grown up and changed? I'd like to think the latter, but I'll leave you to decide.

All comments welcome!

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change and Varieties
ENA6 - Language Debates

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