'Compared to IRA massacres N-word row can seem trivial'
In his latest blunder on Twitter this week, Gerry Adams provoked a storm of controversy by describing himself as a 'Ballymurphy n*****'. Is it the most offensive word in the English language, asks Kim Bielenberg.
It was more than just another public gaffe. The leader of one of Ireland's biggest political parties uses the N-word and the incident attracts international headlines. His colleagues quietly cringe at the very thought of the word being uttered as the news spreads. In this case, the year was 2002 and the perpetrator was none other than Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael.
Kenny made the remarks at a private function in Dublin during a speech to party workers and journalists in the cosy environs of Buswells Hotel. During an anecdote about a holiday in Portugal, he said a Moroccan barman "with shiny teeth" had been asked why a cocktail was called a Lumumba, and replied it was named after "some n***** who died dans la guerre". The quip fell flat and there was a hush of embarrassment across the room.
Fast-forward 14 years to this week and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams uses the N-word in a different context on Twitter, but in its own way, his use of the term was just as clumsy and offensive. Adams provoked the inevitable backlash after tweeting on Sunday night about Django Unchained, the Oscar-winning film about slavery in America. "Watching Django Unchained - A Ballymurphy N*****!" read the tweet.
Adams was born in Ballymurphy, a republican heartland of west Belfast. N***** is described by the website Dictionary.com as "probably the most offensive word in English". But, as with many words, it is not always quite as simple as that.
The N-word may be used in certain contexts by African-Americans themselves, particularly in hip-hop music, just as the label "queer" has been reclaimed by gay and lesbian people.
However, black comedian Larry Wilmore showed how the word still causes offence, even when used by an African-American, when he spoke at a function in Washington attended by US President Barack Obama.
Wilmore said words did not do justice to the idea that he could live at the same time as a black man could be leader of the free world. He concluded: "Yo, Barry, you did it, my n***a. You did it".
Obama insisted later that he wasn't offended and in some African-American circles the N-word is a term of endearment, particularly the variant with an "a" on the end.
But that does not mean the N-word should ever be used by white people, according to Shane O'Curry of the European Network Against Racism.
"My sense of what Adams did is that he lost the run of himself," says O'Curry. "I don't think he was being racist, but he was making a crude equivalence between Irish people under the British state and the experience of African-Americans."
In the case of Adams, the use of the term may have been born out of Sinn Fein's cult of victimhood and the Provisional IRA's foundation myth that it sprang lily-white and without blemish out of the Northern Ireland civil rights movement.
The bogus comparison with the black civil rights movement was a handy device to deflect attention from the painful truth - incidents such as the murder of Jean McConville (whose 10 children had to seek help from the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association), the killing of innocent civilians in pubs, and the sectarian slaughter of Protestant workers in atrocities such as Kingsmill. When one thinks of the scale of these killings, the N-word gaffe seems fairly trivial.
In the case of Kenny, the use of the word may have been a generational throwback. He came of age in an era of The Black And White Minstrel Show. Anyone over the age of 50 recalls that black people could be referred to as "negro" by elderly aunts and the diligent were said to "work like a black". We grew up with the nursery rhyme that ran, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, catch a n***** by the toe'", when the Agatha Christie novel, Ten Little N*****s was on sale in Easons, later to be renamed And Then There Were None.
It was a more racist culture. At my school in the early-1970s, fellow pupils who refused to give you sweets were still described as "Jewish". It is hard to fathom now, but in the 1960s, ITV could make a comedy, Curry and Chips, featuring Spike Milligan blacked up as an Irish Pakistani, Kevin O'Grady, nicknamed "Paki Paddy".
In bar-room company, racist epithets are still probably used and back in 2002, Enda Kenny must have momentarily forgotten that he was effectively in a public forum.
The N-word may have been more commonly heard up until the 1990s, and our emergence as a more cosmopolitan society. But it has had negative and oppressive connotations for centuries, according Professor Neal Lester, Dean of Humanities at the English department at Arizona State University. He told the website Tolerance.org the word started off as the neutral "negro", with no value attached to it.
"We know that, as early as the 17th century, 'negro' evolved to 'n*****' as intentionally derogatory and it has never been able to shed that baggage since then - even when black people talk about appropriating and re-appropriating it," wrote Professor Lester.
"The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history."
The history of the word is such an important cultural touchstone and its usage sometimes so nuanced that, in 2008, Professor Lester taught a course in university on it.
The N-word may be regarded as the most offensive term in the English language by Dictionary.com, but that may change with time. Other terms in common use now may soon become offensive.
One of the main campaign groups for African-Americans in the United States is the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), founded in 1909. But, in other contexts, the term "coloured" (used to refer to Black or Asian people) has for long been off-limits.
The football pundit Alan Hansen had to apologise after referring to "coloured players" on Match of the Day. Reacting to his usage, the former England international Stan Collymore ridiculed this old-fashioned language: "Coloured? What colour would that be? Blue? Green? Orange?"
Sinn Fein supporters may have cringed, but Adams' N-word controversy will blow over. Garrett Mullan of the campaign Show Racism the Card believes the tweet was clumsy and stupid.
"He was foolish and should probably stay off Twitter for a while."