This one is an article about the word nigga.
Ok, so not really but kinda. Just wanted to be sensational haha. You did read the title right, it says “M” word. This article is about words you shouldn’t say and why, like the n-word and the m-word. Because some people don’t seem to get why one group can say some things and other groups are excluded. Like Tom Hank’s son (who’s apparently a rapper???) who has decided he is in fact allowed to say the n-word.
Even lesser known than the n-word, a large number of people (especially younger people) don’t even know anything about the m-word. As the identity is re-emerging I thought I should shed some light on it. I also figured releasing it today, known as Loving Day, would be awesome!
Check it out and let me know what you think! As usual, always open for a respectful debate on the topic!
Two years ago, I started on a journey of self-discovery. What started this journey was a Cheerios ad that came out that pushed me into a discussion on my identity. For the first time in my life I saw an ad that forced me to realize something- my parents don’t match. I know this may seem a shocker, but that was an eye-opening moment for me. My entire life I had parents who didn’t match- my mom is white and my dad is black- and I never gave it much thought. Mom was mom and Dad was dad. For me, it was just the way life was as I grew up in Detroit. Then came this ad where I saw a family like mine and the backlash it received and it made me question my own identity a little more.
For most of my life, I identified as black. Any time I did talk about having a white mom with friends or others, that always seemed to take a side-step to my appearance, so outside of checking boxes, black was the way I went. After this ad, however, I started to think more about the identity I choose for myself and the reasons behind it. I started to come to feel that by not choosing a racial category that included my mom, I was missing out on a major part of who I was and what I wanted to be. Over the next few years, I started trying to find ways I could express my newfound identity. From listening to different types of music to even styling my hair differently, I was trying any avenue I could think of to include all of my heritage. So, I started going by bi-racial.
I had heard the word before- mulatto. I remember a few of my older brothers joking around about it with some of their friends one day. From the context, I could tell it was one of those words- one of those words people “shouldn’t” say but some do anyway. I refrained from ever saying it, unsure of what it meant but knowing it was bad. Of course, as I got older the list of these words got longer. From gendered words, like the “B-word”, to racial slurs like the “N-word”- the list grew longer and longer and the longer it got, the more tantalizing the opportunity to play with them got when adults weren’t listening. Friends and I started calling each other words from the list affectionately and using it sparingly in jokes and exasperations. One word that never made it back from that list though was the “M-word”, mulatto.
As I grew older and began using these words, I also learned the other social rules for them outside of not using them around adults. For example, I learned very quickly that should a white person- or any non-black person really- ever say the “N-word” I was to take immediate offense. And- in all honesty- I never really knew why. I mean, sure slaveowners used to use it and whatnot- but so what?! Slavery was over like a 1000-years ago, right? Why did I get to say it but other people didn’t? Just cause I was black? Well, that’s not fair- I thought. I started to liken it to when friends- usually women- would call each other pejoratives, like the “B-Word”. Should I call a girl that term, the infinite fury of hell would be unleashed upon me. However, her closest friends calling her that would receive a laugh- a cackle loud enough it’d wake the penguins in Antarctica. I’d even heard my mom refer to herself that way, positively. What was the deal?! None of it made sense. Now that I’ve got wiser on my journey into understanding identity, I’ve been able to understand a little more about where these so called “in-group” words come from and how they work.
The academically correct term for words like the “N-word”, the “B-word”, and other in-group words is a reappropriated word (just makes you feel smart saying it, right?!). Reappropriated words are words that were once used as a slur of a group having their meaning reversed. Essentially, it is that group taking pride or other positive spins on that word. A common example most people don’t think of is the “G-word”- dare I type it- gay. Gay is often used in diminutive ways, especially amongst men and young men insecure in their sexuality. However, people who identify as being attracted to the same sex call themselves and others who identify that way gay, despite the negative connotation it might have. They usually even let non-gay people call them that (straight people is what I think those usually go by). So clearly, gay has significantly less stigma than words like the “N-word” and there’s a reason for that, that I didn’t understand before. While gay has taken on a negative connotation in some ways and can be used as an insult, gay people called themselves that long before we did. However, in the case of words like the “N-word”, it is a word with a history much darker.
One of the best explanations I have found for why I can use the “N-word”- and now the “M-word” too- but white people can’t is on the website for a podcast called Philosophy Talk. In a podcast from a few years ago, Ken Taylor talks about forbidden words and breaks down- categorically- how slurs operate. In the talk, he says
“But right now I want to focus on standard, non-appropriated uses of slurs words first. My gut tells me it’s always wrong to call a woman the B-word or to call a Jewish person the K-word. And by that I mean wrong in both the sense of morally objectionable and wrong in the sense of false. To call a Jewish person the K-word is to imply they’re despicable because of their religion. To call a black person the N-word is to imply they’re despicable because of their race. But that’s just false. No one is despicable just because of their race or their religion.”
So why do we get to call ourselves despicable?
Of course, not everything false is morally objectionable. If I called John Perry a Martian, for example, I’d be saying something false but not anything morally objectionable. Wrongly calling a non-Martian a Martian is different from wrongly calling someone the N-word because when you use an ethnic slur, you’re not just implying something false. You’re also helping to perpetuate or echo a history of oppression. You’re endorsing certain negative attitudes and stereotypes that have historically served to keep the targets of the slur in their place. That’s the morally objectionable part. So when you refuse to use these words, you disavow the oppressive history that’s wrapped up in them.
But we have to be careful here. I don’t mean to say that slurs are always instruments of oppression. Take the word, ‘honky.’ That’s a racial slur typically aimed at the historically more powerful by the historically less powerful. It’s a sort of defensive racial slur. Still, since the word ‘honky’ is used to denigrate white people just because they’re white, you might think it’s just as bad as the N-word. I don’t think that’s quite right. Though both are slurs and both are illegitimate, there seems to me to be an important difference between them.
As Taylor mentions, it is about the history that term has taken on when certain groups say them. When a white person- slaveowner from the past or college student in the present- says the “N-word” the invoke the negative meaning behind it, whether willingly or not. That will be true so long as the systems of oppression that word was born in still exist, which they very. much. do. today. However, it is wholly within the right of those disparaged by the system to own the word. That is the whole purpose of reappropriation- to take back some piece of yourself when a system of oppression has not allowed you that, as Marc Lamont Hill explains here.
The “M-word” works a lot the same way. Despite the US never really talking about people from mixed-race backgrounds (black and white or other mixes), a lot of people are brought up to believe you shouldn’t say the word mulatto. And for good reason. Many people believe the idea that it came from the Spanish word for mule, mula, hence likening people of black and white heritage to mules and animals, being worth less than white people. Sound familiar? This theory was prevalent during slavery because whites and blacks were seen as different species, thus a mix of them would be akin to a mule and may have even been- they thought- sterile. So far, that part has been proven wrong. Numerous times. Thankfully.
Another possible etymology for the word has surfaced in recent years though- as biracialism becomes a hot topic again-which argues the term comes from an arabic word meaning, essentially, mixed-race. However, considering some people who fit the bill might believe the mule interpretation, still best to keep the “M-word” in-group only here in the states. I say in the states, because interestingly enough in some other countries, the word is used as any other ethnic identifier. However, as Taylor mentioned above in the science of slurs it is about the set-up of power structures and here in the states, this one is a no for you to use.
Unless you belong to the club.
Like Mat Johnson.
In his piece “Why You Can Kiss My Mulatto Ass”, Johnson explains why the “M-word” peeps want to reclaim (or, reappropriate *tilts glasses*) the word mulatto. While “biracial” and “mixed” (which always reminded me of dogs… not sure why we use that one…) have become the politically correct terms, they leave out the heritage specificity that mulatto has. For those of us working to try to identify with both parts of our identity, the term grants that wish for us.
The biggest problem with “mixed” and “biracial,” as opposed to mulatto, isn’t even their negative correlations—all words have negative attributes, that’s the nature of language—it’s their overwhelming vagueness. The words don’t really say a damn thing. Yo — mixed with what? Biracial with whom? The larger mixed community isn’t simply defined by people of African American and European descent; it comprises people descending from all kinds of hookups. Whether mixed people are combinations of Asian, black, white, Native, or Latino ancestry, each of these hybrid backgrounds comes not only with its own culture, but with its own racial history in America. Mixed works great as a generic term for the larger group, but not in specific terms.
So, don’t use the “M-word”. Or the “N-word”. Or any other word you feel might be reappropriated, really, because reappropriated words tend to have a history. Also don’t assume because someone uses one of these words to identify, it gives you the right to say it. They have a history you are a part of by being a part of the country, and one you have a responsibility to acknowledge and learn from to make this place better. While you do that, I’ll relish in my ability to call myself a mulatto and acknowledge all my heritage in one fell swoop.
And definitely don’t use the word “half-”
But that’s another article…
That’s Where I Stand.