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Home > Secteur-English > General > “Nigger” With a British Accent. Huh?

“Nigger” With a British Accent. Huh?

A quite interesting feature about the world is that it is primarily in the United States that tonality of voice so sharply tracks ethnicity, especially the difference between black persons and white persons. If a black in England speaks with an accent other than the typical English accent, then one can be quite confident that the black was not born in England. Likewise, for the black in France or Holland. In France, there are countless many accents owing to the fact that there are lots of people who have migrated to France. But persons born and raised in France sound French and there is no tonality that tracks ethnicity as such among native born French people. Likewise for persons born and raised in England.

I mention the above because while there is so very much talk among blacks in the U.S. that the word “nigger” is only to be used by blacks, I suspect that the truth of the matter is that what American blacks really have to mean is that the word “nigger” is be used only by American blacks. It would be an utter disaster if, whilst speaking to an American black person, a black person from England uttered the word “nigger” with a full British accent. Likewise if a black from Sweden or even South Africa did so, since neither have anything like the required tonality.

Indeed, I am willing to bet that there are young American white youth who could easily outdo a black born and raised in the United States in terms of uttering the word “nigger” with the tonality that mightily, if not entirely, resembles a black American uttering that word. Lest I be accused of some sort of racial bias, let me quickly add that I do not suppose for a moment that all blacks born and raised in the United States can utter the word “nigger” with the tonality that would be acceptable among blacks who routinely use that word. However, that truth only lends credence to my more general point, namely that the use of the word “nigger” easily has as much to do with tonality as it does with skin color. For there is no chance whatsoever that a black American, whose voice does not have a certain kind of tonality being able to get away with using the word “nigger” in conversation. I do not see that changing.

Alas, the foregoing considerations may point to a kind of deep hypocrisy with respect to the use of the word “nigger” by black Americans. Can it really be that tonality is all that matters ? And if, in the end, tonality is all that really matters, then it is not more than a little hypocritical to limit the use of the word only to blacks ? I mention this because in lots and lots of contexts tonality does indeed matter. And I can easily imagine cases where a person should not say something because she or he cannot manage the right tonality and perhaps corresponding non-verbal behavior. Here is an example. In French, the words “Je t’embrace” literally mean “I kiss you”. In practice, though, the expression is used as a warm term of endearment between all individuals regardless of gender. But as one can readily imagine : The words very much need to be said in the right way. And a person who cannot utter them in the right way is much better off saying something like “Merci beaucoup de ton gentillesse.” (Thank you so much for your kindness).

As the word “nigger” is being used these days in the United States, the parallel between its current use and the racist use of decades gone by has mightily shifted away from that deep and harsh use. And it is more than a little disingenuous to deny the reality of that shift. The typical black rap artist using the word “nigger” these days has no clue what the racism of yesteryear was like. And that reality may explain why white students are feeling ever so comfortable listening to rap music containing the word “nigger” and using that word among themselves

Every now and then, a most sublime form of progress on the part of a group consists in its members doing none other than merely acknowledging that things have substantially changed — a truth from which no ethnicity or social group can rightly claim exemption.

© Laurence Thomas

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