Language Discourse and Power
The Linguistics of Racism
Slideshow by Rachel Dow
Conversation between myself and African American friend
Racism is very prevalent in our society
Conversation between me and an African American friend...
Rach: How do you feel about people using the word Nigger?
Matt: I think that only Niggers (laughs) can use it and only when they are speaking to people they know. It
can still be offensive and insulting when a black person calls another black person a Nigger if he uses it in
that sort of way, but there’s just something a bit worse about a white person saying it. However, it is funny
when some of my white mates say it to me as a joke but they’d never do it to anyone else or in public. I
think it is a word that should just never be thrown around lightly but it can also be funny on movies when
you hear two black guys calling each other Nigger, like on the movie White Chicks. I do know some Black
people that ﬁnd it really derogatory no matter who is saying it or who they are saying it to, to them it is
just really offensive but I don’t really have too much of a problem with it unless someone says it to me in a
really insulting way, trying to upset me or something. I think any word or name can be offensive or
insulting if it’s being used in that way though. LIke if someone said to you “You’re just a stupid white girl,
you don’t know nothing”. That makes the word white sound bad, just as if someone said “You stupid
What is Racism?
It is based on a construction of groups who are attributed speciﬁc
characteristics or traits such as biological features, appearances, cultural
practices and traditions, language and customs.
A social system of domination, one group having power over another
because of ethnicity or race.
Racism and power are closely linked in a hegemonic realtionship
(Study Guide, Unit 6, 2009, pp. 1-2)
Information about Racism
It is something that moves with the times and can be manifested in
different ways, such as acts of violence, verbal abuse, neglect and social
discrimination and exclusion.
It can come from many sources such as TV, magazines, newspapers,
radio, peers, internet, and so on.
However, the struggle between racism and power seems to be the main
cause of racism worldwide.
Derogatory Ethnic Labels (DELs)
Harmon and Wilson (2006, p. 81) state that DELs encourage the categorization of people
which directs and focuses the hatred of those people.
They stereotype negative beliefs associated with the out-group and can be used to provoke,
threaten, ridicule, and convey certain feelings towards the out-group.
They can be used to make the person who is using them feel good about themselves and
their dominant group.
A common DEL is Nigger, derived from the Latin word for black, Niger, and used to describe
the race of African Americans. It is also the focus of the two selected texts.
The ‘N’ Word
By 1837 Hosea Easton described Nigger as “an opprobrious term,
employed to impose contempt upon blacks as an inferior race...” (as
cited in Study Guide, Unit 6, 2009, p. 12).
However, over the 20th century, the word became more and more
condemned as a term of abuse.
The ‘N’ word also describes a race, which is the product of the language
that it is used about, and is a distinct category of human being deﬁned
by physical characteristics - in this case, skin colour.
Matt states that the use of the word Nigger by other African
Americans can’t really be construed as racist as when it is being
used by a European.
This claim can also be backed up by rapper Ice-T (in Kennedy,
2002, p. 51 cited in Study Guide, Unit 6, 2009, p. 12). They both
say that it is ok when used as self-labelling.
However, this is not the view of all African Americans as some
see its use to be inappropriate.
Well-known actor and comedian makes racist remarks in stand
up comedy routine, using the ‘N’ word enthusiastically.
This creates a power division between himself and his audience,
reifying their ethnic and cultural differences.
He also makes references to African Americans being victims of
Civil rights abuse and taunts them with racist comments
Holliday et al (2004, p. 180) deﬁnes otherisation as “The process we
undertake in ascribing identity to the self through the often negative
attribution of characteristics to the other”
As language is a medium of power and used to oppress power relations,
Richards uses his words to oppress and otherise his audience who are
Uses the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’ to divide and otherise the African
Americans from himself
Creates a difference between the self and other, as well as a source of power.
Racism has negative connotations placed upon it, so denial is a
common characteristic of racist people.
Richards says “I am not racist...” clearly displaying denial as a
notion of post-civil rights racial discourse (Bonilla-Silva, 2006),
which prohibits the open expressions of racist views.
This form of denial is known as the ultimate strategy of self-
Racist Language, particularly the use of the DEL ‘N’ word, is only
acceptable as a form of self-labelling
It causes and reiﬁes ethnic differences
It otherises the out-group
It creates power struggles and differences
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Colour-blind racism and the persistence of
racial inequality in the United States (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littleﬁeld
Harmon, M.R., & Wilson, M.J. (2006). Beyond Grammar: Language, power and the
classroom. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence and Erlbaum Associates.
Holliday, A., Hyde, M., & Kullman, J. (2004). Intercultural communication: An advanced
resource book. London: Routledge
Manawatu Standard. (2006, 22 November). ‘N’ word lands comic in hot water. Manawatu
Standard, p. 11.
Study Guide. (2009). Study Guide for Language, Discourse, and Power, Unit 6. Massey
University, School of Language Studies.