During a recent vacation, I took my four kids to a local playground to shake off a day’s worth of pent-up summer anxiety. My two older boys darted out of my truck to play basketball while my two youngest found some unoccupied swings. Just as I was settling on a bench to read a friend’s manuscript, a shiny, white, Ford pickup truck with what appeared to be three teenage boys slowed down on the main road, parallel to the playscape, and shouted “Nigger! Nigger! Nigger!” I suppose I hadn’t bothered to notice the race of the other families. They were regular folks, just like me, who needed their kids to blow off extra kid steam on a notably hot day. Also, like me, their bodies betrayed their disgust behind sucked teeth and a long-simmering anger disguised as ambivalence. Once the F-150 ranters disappeared, I heard one teen confess to another, “Nigger, those White boys are from our school!” They laughed, whispered some mild threats and resumed their activity, as we all did, in surreal numbness to the verbal lobby.
Within earshot of the white truck and the teenage boys, my daughter, the 4-year-old interrogator, jumped off her swing and pulled my sleeve.
“Mommy, what’s a nigger?”
Her question made me stumble, primarily due to the mixed context in which she heard the word. Sure, I could construct some simple explanation, but I might disservice her future understanding of binaried language and social mores. The other option would be to delay answer; but I didn’t foresee the explanation getting any easier over time. Essentially, my kid was asking me a question that she didn’t outright ask. The same question that many folks ask: Why does the word “nigger” land differently from different mouths?
Language is such a wild beast. It’s either a gabardine-suited devil atop our left shoulder or the gossamer-winged angel on our right narrating the texture of our inner lives. And yet only a technical few, usually kids or philosophers, ever bother to wonder why language is so important, or how it shapes our world and thoughts. I suppose that’s why both camps ask “why?” all the time. Nothing truly makes sense to them, or us, and this skepticism has driven many philosophers to the stark-raving brink—except for my healthy obsession, Ludwig Wittgenstein, or Wittie as I affectionately call him.
In trying to formulate an answer for my daughter’s question, I found myself replaying a bit of Wittie’s struggle to understand language and its use. One of the most renowned philosophers of the 20th century, Wittgenstein wrote two opposing philosophies about how we synthesize language. In Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, his first work published under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein posits that language represents the world through depiction, and pictures are how we think and process language. Stated simply, we know a table is a table because we’ve seen a table or we can imagine an image of a table. Pictures give us a framework for understanding. And this makes perfect sense when considering why historically racist, visual insults work. Essentially, the person who insults has a racist representation, almost certainly an exaggerated one, of what a “nigger” looks like and characteristically represents. Steeped in stereotype, historical bias and racial conflation, a “nigger” becomes synonymous with all things black, a group without distinction and made invisible. Since Tractatus suggests that language mirrors states of affairs in which objects are engaged, questions arise: if the object is invisible, does the object even exist? What if the object is the Black body? These questions apply pressure to what language can and can not do. The word “nigger,” when hurled from the lips of a White person, insists on the complete abdication of being, the nonessential inexistent, no longer a picture, no longer an object, no longer anything. In this case, language is doing a good deal of heavy lifting and erasure.
But, then, how could I explain the Black teens and their use of the word? Luckily, Wittie provides scaffolding there, too. Some thirty-one years later, Tractatus, Philosophical Investigations was published, posthumously, in 1953. In the latter text, Wittgenstein discarded much of what he earlier argued. He moved away from the picture theory to a “tool” theory; pictures convey an object while tools have many uses. Believing the strength of words derive not from Platonic essence, or pictorials, but from a series of crisscrossing similarities, a “family resemblance.” He militated against monolithic, set meanings for words and advocated for a set of meaningful connections and resemblances. In this “language game” with its own set of conventions and rules, meaning is subjugated to use. Or, if framed in Wittgenstein’s signature aphoristic style, don’t ask for the meaning of the word, ask for the use.
Absent Archimedean distance in the language game, Wittie suggests we are constantly operating inside of language; it’s no longer imposed or happening to us. We can evaluate and assign meaning, and we can distinguish between language that states facts (sense) and language that doesn’t state fact (nonsense). When one is called a “nigger” a received “fact” is being imposed, but when one calls himself or herself a “nigger” it can be viewed as intentional nonsense, a dismissal of the historical imposition. Both are allowed in the language game because, according to Wittgenstein, there is no such thing as a private language and rules are subject to different interpretations. And since obeisance to rules is a social practice governed by social criteria, we have a say whether the word is actually used, how it’s used and if it’s used correctly.
Though he changed his mind about language, Wittgenstein’s dueling propositions both hold validity. Words are deeds, concerted actions. They elicit visceral responses. They incite. They enact. They calm. They numb. They hurt. They conjure images. And, we, social and biological primitives, have been given responsibility for these stealth weapons. We assault and respond in all the ways we’ve been conditioned. We play the game our forbears taught us.
All of these considerations loosely in mind, I returned to my daughter’s question and offered, “Nigger is a word with two faces.”
Without skipping a beat, she fiddles with one of her twisted strands before darting off and declares, “Oh. . .okay. I thought it was a flower. I still do.”