Universality of Language
How should I react when a fellow Arab uses the n-word in my presence?
That’s a question that I unfortunately have to grapple with more often than I would like (which is never).
My impulse is to scream profanities, to react in outrage, to unleash the pent up anger and hurt from years of racist encounters. But more often than not, I choose to resort to silence. Beyond the trepidation that comes with having to explain histories of marginalisation and oppression and the anxiety of having experiences delegitimised and written off, I hesitate because explaining why it’s a slur requires explaining a history and a language that is not our own. I pause because I’m aware that I couldn’t even begin to explain myself in Arabic.
In this globalised world, proficiency in English and the ability to navigate the cultural terrains and decipher the meanings, contexts and significance of terms and histories is more than a tool; it’s a privilege.
This is not to excuse bigotry, nor to deny that individuals can learn, unlearn and relearn histories and languages of oppression. But a lot of the critiques and call-outs that I encounter function on the assumption that English is universal. That the language of the formerly colonised must progress and develop in tandem with that of their former colonisers. That historical events bear universal significance. That we must all suffer from a collective trauma.
So how do I usually react when someone uses the n-word in my presence? I retort with, “You do realise that that is an extremely offensive slur in the West? You didn’t know? Now you do!”