Recently, I wrote a commentary on CentricTV.com about news anchor Robin Roberts’ coming out and posed the question (also the headline) “Will Robin Roberts’ Coming Out Shatter Stereotypes of Black Queer Women?”
To my surprise, my editor brought to my attention some backlash from Centric’s Facebook page, where my article had been shared. Many of the Facebook users took issue with the use of the word “queer.” Some argued that referring to Roberts as queer was disrespectful and demeaning.
“I hope in 2014 we stop using the word “queer”? Shame on you Centric tv!!,” one user wrote.
My editor and I were a bit taken aback, as we both understand the meaning of the word “Queer” and its political and social embracement within the LGBT community. The fervent responses caused my editor to use Centric’s Facebook page to respond to some of the disgruntled commenters:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The term “queer” started as an insult, a kind of slur, in the 60s. However, the word has been re-appropriated by the LGBT community.“We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” is a chant frequently heard at pride and protest events. It’s an umbrella term; a way to say “LGBT” without having to say an awkward mouthful of letters. Using the term includes all of the non-gender binary identities that the LGBT label tends to ignore.In recent years, however, queer has taken on a whole new meaning. It has become an identity in itself.
Ironically, that same day a Facebook friend of mine wrote on my wall, asking me what my personal thoughts were on the whole “Nigga” and “Queer” debate, as both words are still very sensitive terms that many consider to be harmful, yet they’re both heavily used in today’s mainstream pop culture. I sat on the question for a while, because I wanted to be thoughtful in my response. When it comes to the use of these words you have to approach it from both a humanistic and theoretical perspective – it’s not so black and white. Having studied English in undergrad, I understand the fluidity of language and how we, the people, shape it. Here was my response:
I’ll simply say this. The goal of any sensible society of equality should be to respect the humanity of all people. Any word or language that threatens or demeans the humanity of any group of people, should not be tolerated. However, from a linguistic perspective words and their meaning change over time. The public and its majority usage shapes what words mean and whether or not they are deemed offensive. As far as I can tell, from a mainstream perspective, the words queer and nigga have taken on more of ameliorative meanings. The LGBT community has, for the most part, reclaimed the word queer as a term of endearment, and while the Black community is rather divided on the word nigga, I would venture to say that “nigga” and “nigger,” simply based on phonetics and how they are spelled, are two completely different words. Because the words “queer” and “nigger” were used to dehumanize and discriminate the particular groups – gays and African-Americans – those groups have the right to reclaim or reject those terms. There’s no simple answer, however, because regardless of what the majority say, they carry very ugly and traumatic histories and will always be seen as offensive to some, even if only a few.
There isn’t necessarily a “right” answer to how we should tackle the use of such words. To use or not to use is a personal choice. From a societal perspective, however, we have control of the words we use and what they mean. Some words shape new meaning over time – as in the case of the N-word and queer – while some remain universally offensive, like the word “faggot,” which I personally band my friends from saying in my company. Ultimately, what matters is the intent. Words that are used to intentionally dehumanize or offend another person(s) should never be used, but we must also understand that language was shaped by man and, therefore, can be altered by man too.
So if rappers – like Nas so memorably tried to do in 2007 – want to reclaim “nigger” or its variation, “nigga,” that is their artistic right. However, I do challenge them, and anyone who uses such controversial words, to do so with careful thought and knowledge of their historical ties. Because words are powerful and can have damaging affects, no matter how much you redefine them.