The racist rant heard nationwide by Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy Kramer on TV's Seinfeld, shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, but most Americans, sending us back to an ugly era in U.S. history.
While it is easy to get sidetracked by raising queries about the intent of Richards' repetitive use of the n-word, or to vilify Richards for his vitriol, we as Americans must look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word develops broad-based cultural acceptance in our society. Similarly, we must look at how the word 'queer' has gained broad-base cultural acceptance in our community.
In 2002, a reader of my column posed an important yet troubling question. In a letter to the editor, he asked me, 'In your writings, do you ever refer to black people as 'niggers?' If you don't, why not? Many young blacks refer to themselves as 'niggers.' Isn't it empowering for you people to take back such an ugly word? He asked this because I commonly refer to lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people as 'queers.'
The word 'queer' is troubling to many in our community. Just ask Wade, a reader living in the South: 'The genesis of the word 'queer' is hate and violence. I'm 39 and old enough to recognize that a venomous slur will always be a venomous slur. I'm also young enough to realize that not everyone is as progressive as you might think, especially in communities in the South. I would ask them if they would be as bold to pronounce themselves 'queer' in places like Utah, Idaho, Kentucky or Mississippi?'
However, renowned African-American journalist John Ridley in his essay, 'Nigger v. Queer: How Gays Got it Right,' certainly thinks differently. 'This is where gays got it right. There was a time when queer was a harsh pejorative for homosexual. But instead of trying to force people into using convoluted phrases such as 'the Q-word,' they embraced the word queer. Gays stole it from their enemies.'
But Ridley, as a straight male, doesn't know that words like 'lesbian,' 'gay' and 'queer' are also troubling to many African Americans, which is why many use terms like 'in the life,' an identifier that derives from the Harlem Renaissance, and 'same-gender loving,' which became popular in the 1990s.
With these derogatory terms comes the question of ownership. For example, the current bickering over the n-word—made popular by young African-Americans in hip-hop music—is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but about who has the right to use it, which is why Richards was publicly pulverized.
Many African Americans, and not just the hip-hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word functions as a form of resistance against the dominant culture's use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it. However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word—yet it is considered racist for others outside the race—unquestionably sets up a double standard. The notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is an absurd argument, since language is a public enterprise.
The word 'queer' entered the American lexicon as a self-referential term in the 1990s that was opened up for public use. It was hailed as a chosen term to reflect the new paradigm in LGBT politics, hence the birth of 'queer politics.' I embrace the term to stand in solidarity with this new movement and to reflect its diversity by adding my voice and activism.
Also, the term 'queer' has been embraced by the majority of LGBT people both in the academy and on the street, and you see that acceptance in bookstores where a plethora of material on topics like 'queer theory,' 'queer literature' and 'queer theology' are displayed.
The n-word, on the other hand, has not as of yet been hailed as a chosen term by the majority of African Americans. The appropriation of the n-word by African Americans fails to obliterate the word's historical baggage. The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of a racist language that is still used to disparage African Americans.
However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the 'er' ending and replacing it with either an 'a' or 'ah' ending, the word morphs into a term of endearment. But many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the 'a' ending and, in the 1920s, many African-Americans used the 'a' ending as a pejorative term to denote class difference among themselves. And in 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the dictionary definition of the n-word to no longer mean African Americans but, instead, a racial slur.
While it is fine to reclaim language and turn it on its head, the problem is when the sting of the word comes back to bite you.