Beyond Blaming Kramer

Beyond Blaming Kramer


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 How Long Will the Negro Be Scapegoat?



Beyond Blaming Kramer: That n-word, again

By Rev. Irene Monroe


The racist rant heard nationwide by Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the T.V. sit-com Seinfeld, shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, but his racist rant also shocked Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

While it is easy to  get sidetracked by raising queries about the tenor and intent of Richards repetitive use of the n- word in the context of supposed humor or to  vilify Richards for his blatant  vile vitriol we must as Americans look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet  like the n-word, that was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-base cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans’ use of it in hip-hop music the bantering and bickering over this word today  is  no longer about  who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it which is why Richards was publicly pulverized.

Our culture’s present-day  cavalier use  of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and  more about how we as Americans— both white and black Americans—have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of  this epithet.

Many African Americans, and not just the  hip-hop generation, state that reclaiming the n-word serve as an act of  group agency and  as  a form of  resistance against the dominate culture’s use of it and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.  

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word  yet consider it racist for others outside the race unquestionably sets up a double standard.  Also the notion  that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise. 

But  African Americans’ appropriation of the n-word as insiders does neither obliterate the historical baggage fraught with the word nor obliterate  its concomitant social relations among blacks, and between whites and blacks as well. And because  some African Americans use the term it does not negate also our  long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist  language that was and still is used to disparage  African Americans. However today  the meaning of the n-word is all in how ones spells it. By dropping the “er’ ending and replacing it with  either an “a” or ‘ah” ending the term morphs into a term of  endearment. But many slaveholders pronounced the  n-word with the “a’ ending, and in the 1920’s many African Americans used the “a’ ending as a pejorative term to denote class difference among themselves.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced  Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead a racial slur.  And while the battle to change the  n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one our culture’s neo revisionist  use of the n-word  makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.


Because language is a representation of culture.  Language reinscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of social protests, but it was also rooted  in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old  Testament  as their talking-book. The Exodus story was used to  rebuke systemic oppression,  racist themes, and negative images of themselves. 

Many activists argue that Richards repentance should be volunteer work in a predominately African American community anywhere in the country. However, he would find there too that many of us keeping the n-word alive.

But what would work for him and many in my community is a history lesson because reclaiming racist  words like the n-word  does not eradicate its historical baggage, and its existing racial  relations among us.

Instead it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant  to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans.  It  also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of  the power and  currency  this  racial epithet still has and thwarts the daily struggle many of us  Americans work hard at  in trying  to ameliorate race relations.

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posted 2 December 2006 




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