A Ku Indeed!

The Word. Yeah, _That_ One

Posted in Life by Chris on November 23, 2008

For the past few months, I’ve been a regular reader of the online blogs run by The Atlantic. My immersion into this community of bloggers started when I was drawn to Andrew Sullivan’s blog, which appears there. But since then I’ve been pulled into some of the other Atlantic online “columnists”. Without a doubt, the most fun read is Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’s got a way with words for sure, and he reminds me a lot of the people I knew and was friends with while growing up in New York. In this column (he has an older and more expanded column on his here) he advances his thesis about the use of that word (and some of its more amusing variations). You know which one. He has some interesting — and characteristically controversial — things to say about its use, and who is and isn’t allowed to use it, and when.


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  1. Bill Haines said, on November 24, 2008 at 7:51 am

    Yes that is interesting, my Chrizzle. But Coates’ post has the effect of driving home for me your earlier point that the idea “racism is over” can liberate some things that shouldn’t be liberated.

    (When I first saw your post title I guessed wrong about the word, because the title started a Beatles record in my head: “It’s the word / I’m thinking of / have you heard? / The word is ‘love’.” Then when I read your post but before I hit the link I guessed wrong again.)

  2. Chris said, on November 24, 2008 at 4:53 pm


    To be honest, I agree with you. Heck, even in my post title, I called it “that word” — partly as a joke, but also partly because I simply don’t feel right using it. So on that matter, I disagree with Coates — I think it does matter quite a bit. I guess I don’t feel quite ready to call another man’s wife “honey” just yet, if you get the reference.

    But this might be because I (and you) are a part of a generation inexorably tied to a historical framework and racial context that makes it unusable for us. Our generation still has “too much blood” on its hands. It might be the case, however, that more recent generations have less, and as a result not using the word (by whites, anyway) is less of a problem. Coates points to this among young blacks and whites today. Hard to believe that the racial context has changed that much, but it may well have.

  3. Alexus McLeod said, on November 24, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    Hey guys–
    I’m a member of a somewhat younger generation (I guess, I was born in ’78), but I still find that word horribly offensive, and dislike it’s use in most contexts. I disagree with Coates here too. Part of my problem with it is it is just too loaded with historical meaning–we can’t just erase the historical baggage of a word because we decide “we’re not going to be racist anymore.” It’s still there. When I hear that word even in contexts some people think of as acceptable, I feel subtly undermined as a person, and I suspect many other black people feel the same way (though not all, of course). This, of course, is not due to the intentions of the utterer, necessarily, but because the word has such emotionally charged negative baggage that comes with it. Sure, it’s just a word (the Chapelle/Coates/etc. argument), and this would make it fairly innocuous in a historical vacuum, but as much as we might like to, we can’t erase the past and the hatred and pain and other horrible things that come with the word. That’s why I won’t use it, even though (by Coates’ argument, at least) I have some claim to. It’s not quite like calling one’s wife ‘honey’. More like calling one’s wife ‘bitch’. It’s unacceptable even for the husband, let alone anyone else (other than in a joking fashion, I guess, and sometimes even then).
    Also–it seems to me that all (or at least most) of the “upsides” of use of this word can be achieved through using some other word(s). It’s not like language is static and non-malleable. We make new words all the time–why do we NEED to use this old hateful one best forgotten about and discarded into the trash can of history? Maybe it would be more of a sign of a “post-racial” America (which we’ve not even come close to achieving, I think) if no one ever found reason to use the word. I think we DO live in (for the most part) a society in which anti-Irish (for example) attitudes have pretty much disappeared, but how many people use the derogatory term ‘Mick’ anymore?

  4. Chris said, on November 25, 2008 at 8:48 am


    You said at the start — “in most contexts”. What contexts is it less offensive? Does Coates have a point here that it is context dependent?

    I agree that the intentions of the speaker are not a necessary condition for the negative effect you mention (the undermining of person-hood) to occur. The historical baggage does seem necessary, though not sufficient (some know the baggage, but aren’t bothered by the term).

    The Coates-type “appropriation” arguments have always been curious to me. On the one hand, I understand there’s something to “owning” a word and taking over part of its use. It’s about control and power. But at the same time, appropriating the word by blacks — at least from my point of view — does little to disarm it of its offensive power when used by whites. Then again, I may be wrong. Perhaps the even younger generation — my current freshmen, born in 1990, might be in a different “place.” And maybe some of this has resulted from the appropriation of the word. I’m just not sure.

    I agree, by the way, that “bitch” is a better analogy than “honey.” Still, I think the analogy makes Coates’ (partial) point — that words don’t have connotation in a vacuum; they have historical or relational contexts. And that’s why it’s at least prima facie suspicious when whites use the word.

  5. Peony said, on November 25, 2008 at 5:47 pm

    I think actually honey was the better analogy– since of course it implies the inner/outer diochotemy (whereby certain words are OK withn an in group but not–never– from not within the in group) The other word is more ambiguous of course since there are so many implied nuances

    That’s what I think about honey.

    But is it– on the other hand– OK to call a woman’s husband a honey (a practice I think has certain acceptability)– right honey (that was for Bill)??

    Regarding the word, I also was expecting something utterly different, and was “beckoned onto un-delight” when I folowed the link and remain annoyed.

    Over and out,

  6. Bill Haines said, on November 25, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    I’m just a ‘noid. (That’s Federation for ‘humanoid’, but with a phonetic subtext.)

    I’m annoyed at Rowling for ‘muggle’. For a while I thought maybe her intent was to set kids up for “Hey, I’m one” moments, but I haven’t heard that she helped them in that direction in her books.

  7. Chris said, on November 25, 2008 at 8:22 pm

    LY 2.12: 子曰:“君子不器

    子曰:Confucius said
    君子: Junzi
    不: not
    器: muggle

  8. Alexus McLeod said, on November 26, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    What I was thinking in saying “in most contexts” was the word as being used rather than mentioned. It’s mention is useful and necessary for doing history, reporting others’ feelings and beliefs, etc. I can’t really think of any acceptable contexts as far as use right now. I guess that’s a kind of context dependency, but very different than the kind Coates talks about. In that sense, I don’t favor the use in any context.

  9. Chris said, on November 26, 2008 at 5:44 pm

    Oh — I thought you meant there were context dependencies with respect to use (Coates’ point). To be honest, I feel uncomfortable with mention as well, personally. For me, it’s a word that transcends the distinction in that sense. It’s as if all mention becomes use.

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