Lowlands-L: Beyond the Pale: A border-crossing guide for language learners
Lowlands-L: Beyond the Pale: A border-crossing guide for language learners

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A word to avoid: the N word”

Slavery of Africans and their descendants constitutes one of the most egregious wrongdoings of European colonialism. While this particular brand of slavery is officially a thing of the past, the mindsets it created and fostered have not been erased altogether so far. Neither have anger and emotional scars disappeared among those whose forefathers were victims of slavery and of post-slavery lynching and other crimes against humanity. These people often still encounter racism, be it flagrant or subtle (“with a smile”), and their sensitivity to it is heightened to a degree that few other people fully appreciate.

It is therefore extremely important that other people, especially Europeans and people of European descent, treat this issue with respect and compassion. One of the most important rules is not to use “the N word” (and this includes the milder, original version “negro”) in English. It simply won’t do to argue “I don’t mean anything by it. It’s perfectly inoffensive to use the equivalent in my language.” I have witnessed African Americans being offended by similar-sounding equivalents used in other languages. Yes, some African Americans use “the N word” among themselves to be “outrageous” or for whatever other reason. This does not mean that it is all right for others to do so.

Don’t argue! It isn’t a matter for debate. Don’t complain! Don’t brush it off as meaningless political correctness! It isn’t a matter for you to judge. Do the decent and compassionate thing: don’t use it! It’s loaded, super-charged, and it hurts.

So what can you say? Different countries have different conventions to name their citizens of African ancestry. If you absolutely have to refer to them in “racial” terms, US Americans of non-specific or uncertain Sub-Saharan African origin are best referred to as “African American,” and even (capitalized) “Black” is better than any “N word” and “Colored.” If the country of origin is known, then you should use it, as in “Kenyan American,” “Mozambican American” or “South African American” (any of which can be used for people of other “races” as well). This is consistent with a general naming convention (for instance “Dutch American,” “German American,” “Canadian American,” “Mexican American” and “Chinese American”). I refer to one of my American acquaintences as a fellow “German American” if her country of origin is ever relevant. She identifies herself as such. The fact that she has African ancestry as well is obvious only to those that have set eyes on her, and people that don’t know anything else about her obviously jump to the conclusion that she is African American, which I guess she is in a round-about way.

Fortunately, it looks as though we are moving toward a time when none of these labels will be considered relevant and necessary.

Reinhard “Ron” F. Hahn (Member of Lowlands-L)
Seattle, Washington, USA, April 2, 2008

Based on an idea of Jonny Meibohm (Member of Lowlands-L)
Bremerhaven, Lower Saxony, Germany, March 28, 2008


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