Django Unchained: The ‘n’ is silent

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Why does Quentin Tarantino get to say “niggerâ€?? The question’s been asked since as far back as Pulp Fiction and, with Django Unchained about to hit UK cinemas, it’s come around again. The power of that particular racial epithet says much about our relationship with language. You’ll hear many a right-wing apologist claim that it’s “just a wordâ€? and to use it is no more offensive than to call someone with a large forehead “cliff faceâ€?.

Except it isn’t, is it? Clearly neither is a pleasant remark, and apologies to any cranially over-endowed readers who might’ve been offended by my last comment. But unless, to paraphrase Stewart Lee, there were hundreds of years of slavery and oppression based on the size of one’s forehead that my school history lessons overlooked, the one word clearly carries more power than the other.

Reclamation explains how and why minorities turn insults into badges of pride: by owning the word, you rob your attacker of his power in using it. At least that’s the idea. If such words really were robbed of their power, then we wouldn’t end up with people still being so sensitive about them.

Witness the interviewer who asked Samuel L Jackson about the use of “the n-wordâ€? in Django Unchained. Despite Jackson’s encouragement, the interviewer couldn’t bring himself to utter the dreaded descriptor and was ridiculed all over the Twittersphere as a result. But his discomfort is understandable.

Race is an even more sensitive issue in the US than it is in the UK, with the analytical use of racial phraseology often receiving equal scorn to full-blooded racism. The late Christopher Hitchens recalled how he was pulled off air and escorted from the studio after using the word “niggerâ€? in a (supposedly) intelligent discussion about the changing nature of language.

As Jackson’s scornful attitude suggests, this over-sensitivity is a self-perpetuating product of whites. It’s a craven sort of apology: the equivalent of throwing your hands over your face and whining “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!â€? so you can shout down the insulted with self-hate and not actually have to engage with the nature of your own misdeed.

Tarantino is allowed to use such language because he is engaged with its history. Through good films and bad, he has championed black characters and given them the reins – in language and cinematic conventions – which once oppressed or outright ignored them. Quentin Tarantino gets to say “niggerâ€? because he knows what it means.

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