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And now the N-word …

05/06/2011

Long-time talk show host and sports commentator Murray Deaker dropped a clanger recently on his Sky TV sports show.  Referring to an industrious South Island sheep-farmer, Deaker described him as “working like a nigger”.  Complaints were made.  Sky initially took up a bullish defence of Deaker – a spokesman asserting that the expression was in common use in New Zealand – before pulling its head in somewhat following criticism from the Race Relations Commissioner.  Deaker himself has since apologised.

In an earlier blog, I noted that the n-word is one of the most disapproved words in English, along with the c-word.  But this is undoubtedly in the context of its – the n-word’s – use as a racist slur against black – or brown – people.  Whereas to be fair to Deaker, we can I believe take it that in using the expression “working like a nigger”, he was not intending to insult the farmer by comparing him to a black person.  On the contrary, he was clearly praising his hard-work ethic.

Nor, at least consciously, was Deaker intending to disparage black people.  Of course, the simile is overtly racist in origin.  Undoubtedly it entered the vernacular – along with many other such slurs – in the slavery period, especially in the United States.  From whence we also acquired the metaphor for a weakness in some argument or state of affairs – the “nigger in the woodpile”.  And when Murray Deaker was a lad – and I also – the common version of the children’s counting doggerel was “Eeny meeny miny mo, catch a nigger by his toe”, etc.

What, it seems to me, is revealed by Deaker’s use of the expression to work “like a nigger” is not racism but his age.  I’m sure the expression is still used today in New Zealand – by people of my or my parents’ generation.  They are not racists per se in so doing.  A typical such user – now in his or her 60s or beyond – would not dream of calling a Maori or Polynesian a “nigger”,  a “coon” or a “coconut”.  Unless of course the user is a racist and intends a racist slur.

Societal disapproval of “nigger” in English-speaking countries, evident from the mid-20th Century, can be traced especially to the civil rights movement in the United States, so from the 1960s in particular.  Before then it undoubtedly had been in common – though not polite – usage across the English-speaking world.  But by the 1970s it had become unacceptable in the mainstream – and certainly in the media and politics – to use the word.

Yet close approximations of the word continue to be used in the vernacular of other languages – with or without the racist intent.  So, here in Bulgaria the commonly-used word for an African or dark-skinned person is “негър” – which is definitely not Slavic in origin and presumably comes from the corruption of “negro” which occurred in a number of languages.  “Негър” and its derivatives are routinely used to describe a black person – in movie subtitling for example – and I’ve often heard Bulgarians thus transposing “nigger” when speaking in English of a black person (the two words are almost identical in sound).  They are typically surprised to be told of how the word sounds to native-English speakers.

And I couldn’t help but notice that in the media coverage of  Murray Deaker’s gaff – in the New Zealand Herald for example – there were no qualms about quoting his actual words, including the word “nigger”.  Would the media have felt so free if Deaker had used words like “cunt” or “motherfucker”?  (I’m sure he doesn’t use such language!)  I believe they would not and would instead have resorted to some form of “bleeping”.  But seemingly it’s not offensive to say or write the word “nigger” when quoting what someone else said …

I’ve  also noted, during recent visits to New Zealand, that racism is alive and well in elements of the “white” community.  People may not use the old slurs like “nigger” or “coon” but the bigotry is still there.  In particular, I’ve observed the growing use of  “early settlers” to refer in mocking, sarcastic – and yes, racist – terms to Maori.  It’s nasty, the more so for its insidious subversion of the original usage of the expression, amongst historians, sociologists and the like, to describe Maori as the original human inhabitants of New Zealand.  To my mind, it’s as nasty and vindictive as “nigger”.

It’s such developments,  rather than Murray Deaker’s unwitting use of an outmoded, racially demeaning  simile (and to describe positive qualities no less),  which the Race Relations Commissioner needs to address.

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