Slave vs. Nigger

How have we come to believe that the word “slave” is less offensive, less objectionable, less hurtful than the word “nigger”?

What forms of amnesia and unknowing must we enact to accept this claim?

While I understand the claims for “historical distance” that give “nigger” a “bite” ostensibly absent from the word “slave,” I also teach classes where the word “slave” becomes difficult to say, impossible to imagine, classes where we break down intellectually and emotionally because we cannot bear to see the word “slave” anymore. And I worry about the claim that the word “slave” has no “bite,” or “less” of a bite than the word “nigger.” Not only because of contemporary slavery, but also because it means we lost, somehow, the weight of the metaphor of slavery: the conversion of humans into abjects and objects.

I do not want to suggest a false opposition between slavery and racism–they are co-emergent and co-exist. But surely there is something wrong when we imagine that we can write “the n- word” and do not need to write “the s-word.” Surely there is something wrong when “slave” is understood to be less objectionable than “nigger.” Surely there is something wrong when the affect we attach to “nigger,” that it is too hurtful for young students to read, does not extend to the word “slave.” We have to ask what it means to “feel backwards,” as Heather Love argues, to inhabit not the liberal narrative of triumph and overcoming, but the bad feeling that lives in the past.

3 thoughts on “Slave vs. Nigger

  1. I Just returned from a trip to Africa, Kenya. The only racism experienced there was tribal and internal. As a white bloke, I was asked for money, etc. That is only because of my colour and assumption of riches that comes with. All considered, I would do the same in that position.

    I guess you live in the USA. The problem of integration there is massive. Mixed schools are the solution. Good Luck.

  2. I think it’s useful to distinguish between racism as a structural issue associated with material privation and psychic damage as opposed to a sense that one is “singled out” because of one’s race. I find the latter, too-familiar description to be very unhelpful, precisely because it erases history in favor of an unrealistic “color-blind” ideal. As Eve Sedgwick once put it, “People are different.”

    Many new studies suggest “mixed schools” retain the structural problems associated with non-integrated communities: students cluster by race and ethnicity and class when not in classrooms. Even as, at the same time, the range of diversities and mixings taking place in non-institutional (and some institutional) spaces continue to amaze me.

    I am loathe to agree that “Europe,” and from the word “bloke” I am assuming the UK, has “solved” the problem of multiculturalism. And, in fact, I am fascinated by how ostensible differences across countries shape race relations. In literature from mid-century, for instance, England-based characters will often remark that “race relations” in England are so much better than in the U.S. I am interested in the kind of social labor such claims enable and disable.

  3. Like Mr Fuller, I simply see a “nigger” as a victim of white supremacy and yet, since White Supremacy enslaved non-whites, i.e.e niggers, to the will of the white supremacists, the terms are indistinguishable.

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