New York bans 'N-word'

NEW York City has declared the word "nigger" off-limits to whites and blacks alike in a symbolic resolution prompted by its increasingly casual use.

The measure urges New Yorkers to voluntarily stop using the word, sometimes referred to as "the N-word" because of its sensitivity and painful history intertwined with slavery.

"People are using it out of context," said Leroy Comrie, a black city councillor who sponsored the measure that was unanimously approved. "People are also denigrating themselves by using the word, and disrespecting their history."

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New York's resolution is not binding, but leaders of the largest city in the United States hope to set an example.

Rudis Mata, 21, of New York, said it was pointless to ban the word if the city had no plans to enforce it, adding that he thought it a violation of free speech.

"I don't necessarily think people should ban the word, but it's a derogatory term and it shouldn't be used," he said. "It's different from other curse words. It has a history."

Other municipalities in the United States have passed similar measures since a debate over the slur rose to a fever pitch late last year after the Seinfeld actor, Michael Richards, spewed the word repeatedly at a comedy club in Los Angeles.

Later, Mr Comrie seethed as he listened to some black teenagers on a street in Queens, New York. "They were saying 'nigga' or 'niggas' every other word," said Mr Comrie. "I could tell they didn't get it. They don't realise how their self-image is debilitated when they use this awful word in public."

At New York's City Hall, supporters cheered passage of the resolution, with many of them wearing pins featuring a single white "N" with a slash through it.

Kurtis Blow Walker, a pioneer of hip-hop music, said that blacks needed to stop using the word so "we can elevate our minds to a better future".

Others argued that use of the word by blacks was empowering, that reclaiming a slur and giving it a new meaning took away its punch. Jamie Foxx, the Oscar-winning actor, has said that he will not stop using the word and that he does not see anything inappropriate about blacks using it within their own circles.

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John Ridley, a black author and film-maker, said efforts to abolish it were insulting because they suggested black Americans would allow themselves to be cowed "by six letters and two syllables".

Unlike the politicians trying to quash the word, Ridley added, those who embraced it were showing backbone by declaring "we're owning it".

"With everything that's going on in America, the idea of trying to ban a word to solve a problem is just ridiculous," he said. "And for people of colour - with us possibly on the cusp of having a black man become president, for us to be worried about this word is ridiculous."

Many rap artists use the slang pronunciation, with an "a" or "az" instead of an "er," in lyrics, such as Snoop Dogg's For All My Niggaz & Bitches or 50 Cent's Realest Nigga, as a statement of pride. But black leaders including the Rev Jesse Jackson said it is impossible to paper over the epithet's ugly history .

"I forgive those young people who do not know their history, and I blame myself and my generation for not preparing you," New York City councillor Albert Vann said.

• THE word nigger, in all its variations, stems from "niger", Latin for black. One of the earliest recorded instances of its use in North America was in 1619, when a Jamestown colonist, John Rolfe, noted in his diary the arrival of a Dutch man-of-war with 20 African captives, or "negars", according to Jabari Asim, author of a new book, The N Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why.

There is some debate among scholars as to whether Rolfe intended the word as a pejorative or not; Asim said he believes it was an insult because otherwise Rolfe would probably have chosen the more neutral "negro", which had been in use as far back as 1555.

By the early 1800s, the word had become common as a slur meaning subhuman and inferior, Asim said. Two centuries later, in 1988, the rap group N.W.A. used the word four dozen times on a best-selling album, Straight Outta Compton, igniting a debate over whether the racist connotation is removed when the word is culturally claimed by blacks themselves.