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December 8, 2006

What Quebec Can Teach Us About the "N Word"

I've already said that our current fixation on the "N Word" is misguided, and only sidetracks us from the conversations we really need to have about race and racism. It's also based on a false premise: this idea that Michael Richards used the word because he felt Black people's usage of it gave him license? Totally off the mark, IMO.

There's no doubt that our constant "nigga" droppings, in and out of the media, sometimes induce a peculiar sense of jealousy in white people.. compelling them to demand their fair share of the N-Word pie, and insist they mustn't be denied a ghetto pass by what they see as a double standard of N-Word Affirmative Action.

But that night at the Laugh Factory wasn't one of those cases. Michael Richards used the word that way because he knew he'd never have a pass for it. His lack of standup skills left him panicked and powerless in the face of these hecklers, so in a final act of desperation he reached for the one surefire weapon he had left, to shock and outrage. He went there precisely because he knows he's never supposed to go there. And the more we try to repress the word, the more attractive it will be to racists like Michael Richards who need to mask their powerlessness by dropping a bomb in the room.

All of that is my long-winded intro to this Washington Post piece that shows how repression can empower profanity, and may help illustrate why these anti N-Word campaigns are doomed to fail:

In French-Speaking Canada, the Sacred Is Also Profane
Quebecers Turn to Church Terms, Rather Than the Sexual or Scatological, to Vent Their Anger

"Oh, tabernacle!" The man swore in French as a car splashed through a puddle, sending water onto his pants. He could never be quoted in the papers here. It is too profane.

So are other angry oaths that sound innocuous in English: chalice, host, baptism. In French-speaking Quebec, swearing sounds like an inventory being taken at a church...

..."In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms."

And the words that are shocking in English -- including the slang for intercourse -- are so mild in Quebecois French they appear routinely in the media. But not church terms.

"You swear about things that are taboo," said André Lapierre, a professor of linguistics at the University of Ottawa. In the United States, "it is not appropriate to talk about sex or scatological subjects, so that is what you use in your curse words. The f-word is a perfect example.

"In Canadian French, you have none of the sexual aspects. So what do you replace it with? You replace it with religion. If you are going to use a taboo word, it would be anything related to the cult, to Christ, the Communion wafer, Jesus Christ, vestments, and elements of the altar like tabernacle. There's quite a few of them..."

Posted by jsmooth995 at December 8, 2006 2:34 PM

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