Why does Quentin Tarantino get to say âniggerâ?? The questionâs been asked since as far back as Pulp Fiction and, with Django Unchained about to hit UK cinemas, itâs come around again. The power of that particular racial epithet says much about our relationship with language. Youâll hear many a right-wing apologist claim that itâs âjust a wordâ? and to use it is no more offensive than to call someone with a large forehead âcliff faceâ?.
Except it isnât, is it? Clearly neither is a pleasant remark, and apologies to any cranially over-endowed readers who mightâve 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 oneâs 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 thatâs the idea. If such words really were robbed of their power, then we wouldnât end up with people still being so sensitive about them.
Witness the interviewer who asked Samuel L Jackson about the use of âthe n-wordâ? in Django Unchained. Despite Jacksonâs encouragement, the interviewer couldnât 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 âniggerâ? in a (supposedly) intelligent discussion about the changing nature of language.
As Jacksonâs scornful attitude suggests, this over-sensitivity is a self-perpetuating product of whites. Itâs a craven sort of apology: the equivalent of throwing your hands over your face and whining âSorry! 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 â in language and cinematic conventions â which once oppressed or outright ignored them. Quentin Tarantino gets to say âniggerâ? because he knows what it means.