There’s a word in the English language that’s so taboo that it is only ever referred to by its first initial, and even then it stands in a class by itself alongside other initialed words casually dropped: F-, C-, etc. Unlike these other initialed words, this is the only word that, among most people, can never be spoken in public or even private life. It’s a word that destroys reputations and careers, makes headlines and ends friendships.
It is, of course, a word with a despicable racist past and carries with it a weight and power that is unmatched in the English language. It’s a word that everyone knows but almost everyone is afraid to say.
You know the Word, so I don’t need to write it here, but I have written and said it elsewhere on very few occasions. I’m sure most people of all races have, whether they admit it or not. When I have used it, it has only ever been in reference as a refutation of the power falsely ascribed to language and in defending my very strong belief that words are not, in themselves, evil, but depend on a context and a speaker (and even using the Word in making that point has caused trouble). I have never used the Word against someone or in hate or used it casually as an epithet, and most of the time when I have heard the Word used in this manner—fortunately not on many occasions—I have found it obligatory to say something to the person using it. So I have participated, willingly and non-willingly, to the aura of power ascribed to this Word.
I don’t believe any word should have this power. It’s a scary thing to think that uttering one word has the potential to cause so much damage, both to the listener and the speaker. Therein, I suppose, lies the essence of taboo: something that presents itself as so unthinkable that it beggars belief why anyone would cross it.
I think I understand. Taboo is toxic to human brains. Humans hate to be prisoners, and nothing is worse than a prison of your own mind. In many ways we are wired to challenge convention, to be independent, to break things. To me, the taboos of everyday life are like desperate parasites clawing at the inside of my brain. They are sometimes all I can think about—not because I want to break them, but just out of a desire to unburden myself from thoughts I am not allowed to have.
When I hear people using the Word, I sometimes think that they’re doing it because they simply can’t accept a world where they don’t have the freedom to say something they want to say. I wonder how many people out there use the world without any malice but simply out of a desire of expanding their expressional arsenal?
I bring this up because recently I had an experience at one of my favorite San Francisco restaurants. I had become friendly with the GM there, but nothing more than casual pleasantries when I patronized his restaurant. This one time I was there with some friends and he came and sat down at the table toward the end of the evening. The conversation ranged, but eventually he found a way to steer it to his favorite topic: how much he hates, well, you know.
It was weird. The last time I had—in the words of a friend—”put a quarter in a racist” was in South Africa, but that was a different experience altogether. I’ve written about South Africa’s frank and refreshingly honest ongoing conversation about race before. At first, it was shocking to an American ear, but after a while you start to realize that South Africans are far closer to the racial discussion than we are. They say what they’re thinking outright and it is probably even cathartic for them. But here in San Francisco, to hear this sort of prejudice is quite surprising, and offensive to say the least. And it was made more offensive by the fact that he didn’t think about how his usage of this word made us dirty by comparison; he made us listen and be complicit in his prejudice.
One of the things the GM at this restaurant said, even as we tried to change the subject and leave the restaurant awkwardly, was that the Word “is my favorite word because I’m not allowed to say it.” That struck me as an odd thing to say. Obviously he had no problem using the Word (although he checked around to make sure there was no one else around when he said it), but the reason he liked using it was its taboo power. Because he’s not allowed to say it. He may have even felt justified saying it, being an immigrant and surely himself a victim of prejudice.
I often have wondered if we ascribe too much power to the Word, and here I received some confirmation. It was, indeed, a powerful word, and made more so by its forbidden nature.
(For the record, my friends and I now boycott this restaurant.)
Here is the strangest thing about the Word. It is perhaps the only word in the English language whose usage carries the privilege of being casually acceptable to some and brutally unacceptable to everyone else. In fact, the Word’s most frequent practitioners are in two diametrically opposed camps. In one, you have some of the worst kinds of people, whose determination to hate, cause pain, oppress, de-legitimize, and fear makes them a fearsome silent minority. The other frequent practitioners of the Word are those people whose livelihoods, freedoms, hopes, dreams, property and fortunes are frequently under real or implied threat by a society borne of the history and culture represented in the Word itself.
Thus, ironically, the Word is likely the only major commonality between how these two groups communicate; yet one group’s usage of the Word represents the past, and the other, the future. Herein lies the power of the Word to unite rather than divide.
I should hope that we all can agree: one day, we want to live in a universe where the racial prejudice and hatred bottled up in the Word have been forgotten to history, and the Word has been stripped of its undeserved power to outrage and offend.