As soon as news broke that Elon Musk’s offer to buy Twitter had been accepted by the board, the app saw a surge of tweets with the word “nigger.” The groundswell of casual racism celebrating the epithet’s use was all in the name of “freedom,” apparently. Because for a large cadre of people online, posting “nigger” is how you know you’re free.
Consider this sampler plate of undirected bigotry:
So when exactly did “nigger” become the acid test for free speech?
Probably around the same time people first learned they couldn’t say “nigger” in public spaces and forums anymore. Of course, no one is stopping anyone from saying or posting “nigger.” Instead, saying the word has consequences, like losing your job, your relationship or the respect of those who know you. The point is, there are now social costs to saying or posting the word. Which also makes it the most expensive word to say. And in America, expensive means valuable.
It’s also considered a word that is now owned by Black people, so when someone who isn’t Black says it, they do so knowing it isn’t a word that’s theirs to use. And this exclusivity makes “nigger” even more valuable. It’s what makes it so adolescent to want to say or post as well. It’s a child’s sense of freedom — something that someone with no sense of history would want to say because it makes them feel some kind of way.
James Baldwin once explained to an interviewer why he, a Black man, isn’t a “nigger,” and why, in fact, white Americans are the real “niggers.” According to Baldwin, “What you say about somebody else, anybody else, reveals you. … More than any other country in the world, we have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent it. White people invented him. I’ve always known — I had to know by the time I was 17 years old — what you were describing is not me. And what you were afraid of was not me. Has to be something else. You’d invented it. So it has to be something you were afraid of and you invested me with.”
He goes on to ask, “But if I am not the nigger, and if it’s true that your invention reveals you, then who is the nigger?”
He lets that question hang in the air, before bringing his thought to its logical conclusion: “The only way we get through life is to know the worst things about it. I know that a person is more important than anything else. Anything else. I learned this because I’ve had to learn it. But you still think, I gather, that the nigger is necessary. Well, he’s unnecessary to me, so he must be necessary to you. So, I give you your problem back — You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”
That’s the absolute truth of the word: It reveals the fear and smallness of the person saying it. “Nigger” is the siren song of the fearful.
Again, folks now like to act like “nigger” is the ultimate expression of freedom of speech. They opine that if they can say that one word, they can say anything. But they’re not any more concerned with their Constitutional right to freedom of speech than the kid on the playground who says “it’s a free country” is interested in Constitutional law. Mari Matsuda, a law professor at Georgetown University, wrote a book, Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech and the First Amendment, in which she deeply considers the issues of both free speech and hate speech and argues that free speech absolutism is a fallacy that leads to abuses of its intent.
In a symposium held at Susquehanna University in 2003, Matsuda spoke to this exact point: “Humans who harm humans operate from a world view under which the harm is valorized. This is why I take speech seriously. It forms the social world that makes harm possible. There is no genocide without supporting propaganda. There is no rape without misogyny; there is no gay bashing without homophobia. There is no lynching without the ‘N’ word.”
Ultimately, this is what people who study hate speech focus on — not the momentary risk posed by a single usage of an epithet, but rather the dynamic of how words become ideology, which becomes a world view that can be weaponized.
As for these keyboard warriors on Twitter, no one ever needs to say “nigger” to prove how free they are, unless they want to prove that’s who they are. Because as Baldwin says, what you say about me reveals more about you. And if a person chooses to say “nigger,” that tells me, “You’re the nigger, baby, it isn’t me.”