Desensitisation: Provoking Thought…

Posted: July 8, 2011 in Social Commentary
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I remember seeing Dustin Hoffman’s performance when I was much younger and it immediately made me think.  It made me consider the truth behind his point and the way I would physically flinch upon hearing racially inflammatory words.   It made me want to agree with him and want to see an end to the power behind the N-word.  I was young, impressionable; still forming my opinions and the idea was, how shall I say – thought-provoking.

A writer, Jennifer M. Hartsock, someone whose blog I whole-heartedly suggest you read and subscribe to, gave me the opportunity to revisit my opinion on this topic, in an offer that I was so taken with that I was inspired, my thoughts provoked, to the point where I was compelled to put them together in the form of this blog.

I was, am, always torn between agreeing with the concept of desensitisation and the incontrovertible fact (in my opinion) that the word is merely the vessel in which the initial thought is housed, is carried, is delivered; that the word is just the audible incarnation of the hatred or bigotry.  If the N-word was desensitised, another would sprout up to convey and hurl the same hurt: the power behind the word would, along with the evolution of language, materialise in some other guise, form or diction – the hydra would sprout a new head.

I therefore hate seeing or hearing black people attempt to ‘take the power out of the N-word’ because it makes me feel as though the person doing so has accepted the word; an ultimate and final insult – that the last laugh is with those who would say ‘see? told you they were stupid, they are so ignorant they have even taken on the word and use it themselves, amongst themselves, towards themselves; they have assimilated it into their own vocabulary and wear it as a badge of pride, honour, distinction.

If racism and bigotry were truly eradicated, if it no longer existed, I think the word would fall out of use, would no longer be a part of our ever evolving vocabulary.  However, whilst we still have intolerance, whilst ignorance still fuels perceptions about a particular group of society, I think I would rather be in a position where I could recognise it, that the person who held those beliefs were upfront about it, that they hurled their venom in my face in a form that I was familiar with, that the weapon of choice (the N-word) was one I already knew, one that I had already prepared a shield to raise against.

So, in answer to the question Jennifer has encouraged me to, again, consider – I don’t think I do agree with the idea of desensitisation.  I think it is an idea that has the absolute best of intentions, but is built upon a flawed stratagem.

As I stated in an earlier blog “Stop! You’re killing all the Mockingbirds”,  I believe the word should not be whitewashed from historical text; that we should be able to look back at it, in context, and continue to learn from it.  I just don’t think any race or group in society should take the verbal excrement thrown at them and start to use it as a product that makes up part of their own personal beauty regime.

The stench of the word is still the same, no matter how you wear it.  However, I am always receptive to a compelling argument – am always willing to change my stance if you are able to convince me.

  1. jjhiii24 says:


    I’ve been reading your blog and feel like we could probably talk for hours about everything. You have a unique perspective on just about everything, and I admire your optimistic pragmatism. Jennifer Hartsock is one smart gal to be tapping you for quotes and sharing your place here.

    We need a lot more voices like yours in the world, which don’t compromise on values or back away from what’s right just because it isn’t mainstream. This post in particular really stands out.

    Words actually only have as much power as we give them. Words act as the messengers for thoughts, and thoughts have enormous power. When certain words become widely associated in society at large with terrible thoughts or awful intentions, as you say, there is no escaping the association except by the agreement of the society which associates the two as belonging together.

    In spite of the almost knee-jerk reaction that certain words seem to evoke, we DO have the power to change our thoughts about them, by replacing the association with the terrible thoughts they acquired in society with the intention to eliminate the terrible thoughts themselves. If enough people simply decided to no longer allow the those thoughts to survive, they would perish.

    Consider me a fan of yours for sure…….John H.

  2. […] Two of my favorite posts are: “STOP! You’re killing all the Mockingbirds” and “Desensitization: Provoking Thought“ […]

  3. Hello, Mark. I’m just about ready to publish this article for my school’s newspaper. But I have one question, with all due respect: what is your ethnic group? Since you’re from Europe, I wouldn’t say you’re African-American. Thank you, and I hope you’re doing well.

    • Hi Jennifer – Since I was born in England, but my parents were born in Jamaica and Barbados respectively, I always select Black-Caribbean.

      So glad to hear that your article is ready to publish :).

  4. Rhapsody says:

    hmmmm…quite the debate, my thought is this or rather question, is it desensitization or internalization? Many use the rational “reclaiming” however if such a thing were true the inferiority complex that plague many people of “color” would not have such authority over their multiplicities of identities, they wouldn’t feel a need to always qualify, quantify, explain away their reasons for simply being. They wouldn’t so easily be offended when addressed as a….N by someone outside of their inner sanctum because according to “them” it has been destigmatized? The fact is no one should use any derogatory term to describe, assign, or designate any particular group of people. The only label we should all be comfortable with and ascribed to is “human beings.”

    • “… if such a thing were true the inferiority complex that plague many people of “color” would not have such authority over their multiplicities of identities…”

      An excellent point! Yet another reason why there will always be a desperate futility in the quest to take the power out of the word.

  5. Coco Rivers says:


    I am sorry that I took so long to read this as it is an excellent post. Your thoughts, so eloquently conveyed, have convinced me of the need to eradicate the word from my lexicon.

    I am sorry to admit that I needed convincing and that so many of the Black people I know subscribe to the thought “it’s ok if we say it, it just doesn’t mean the same thing.” Self-deprecating humor based on hatred is just as demeaning and powerful, regardless of the speaker. I believe that It is indicative of self-hatred, as well.

    Maya Angelou believes that words have power, actual physical energy, and succinctly says that she does not allow, or speak certain words. This post reminded me of her stance.

    I’ve never seen the video clip and it was PERFECT.

    Thank you for sharing…

    • Thank you for reading and even more so for the comments. I also have to say thanks for the reference to Maya Angelou; I wouldn’t have thought to sign up to her website if not for the reminder of her wisdom.

      I tried to desensitise myself recently, by listening to Jay-Z’s greatest hits. It was a combination of the wince I could not stop, each time I heard the word in one of his tracks that seemed to use it on the beat and the look on my brothers face when he asked me why I was listening to it.

      I dislike hearing it in 2Pac’s work as well, but he seemed to redeem himself every-so-often with a track like Unconditional Love…

  6. […] I would like to post my upcoming article “Supression of the Word” in order to gain feedback. Please be aware that I may just ask to update this article with a quote from you. Thank you to my blogging friend, Mark A Warmington, for your contributing blog post Desensitisation: Provoking Thought…. […]

  7. What an excellent post, Mark. I agree that desensitisation doesn’t work and that only new and different ways are then found to express the negativity.Rather than desensitising words for common usage we should work on RESPECT as a positive word that we should see more of. Well done.

    • Alan, if I may, I would like to quote you: “Rather than desensitizing words for common usage we should work on RESPECT as a positive word that we should see more of” in my article this next week. From viewing your page, it looks like you have many talents and interests. Is there anything specific I should say about you?

      Example: “Rather than desensitizing words for common usage we should work on RESPECT as a positive word that we should see more of,” said Alan, a _______ from ____.

      Have you ever been the butt of a crude joke that offended you or that didn’t offend you?

      • Hi Jennifer, feel free to quote me. I always like to think of Peter Ustinov’s words describing himself, ” as a citizen of the World, living in ……”. But that’s too grand for me. I couldn’t bask in his light. I’m a musician/artist from Gloucestershire, England – and just an ordinary Joe trying to make more sense of the world now that I don’t have to fight it.

    • Thank you, and I wish you luck and success.

  8. what a brilliant post, and so true.

  9. Thank you so much for your interest in my article. This turned out to be a very inspiring blog post, one that has me thinking and considering my own opinions. For me, the only way I can accept the use of profanity is if the profanity was no longer considered profane. If the N-word became as meaningless as calling someone a carrot, then by all means, use the N-word. As you said, I don’t think this will ever happen, because some new profane word will take its place (its meaning and intentions).

    I guess, in all honestly, I would love for all profane words to fall out of existence by not being used, or by not being profane. Either one works for me because just because it was once bad, does not mean it always will be (as we’ve seen with history). However, I think we should understand that certain words used to be profane (this is coming from a future standpoint) and that we, as a society and culture, learned to eradicate their viciousness.

    My brother has red hair, and his friends call him a “Ginger” all the time, which he does not take offense to at all. I wish that certain names like this could become empty and powerless, as well.

    • I really can’t wait to read your article; if it will be available online, as it would be intriguing to see the various quotes that you manage to gather together – as so many people have so many differing views on the topic.

      You chose an excellent topic to base it on!

  10. ajjam says:

    Hi Mark.

    As a child of the seventies, I am sure I was brought up with a few words, by my elders, school friends and possibly even family members, to describe people of other ethnic origins than my own, that I don’t even remember anymore. They were words, in the ignorance of the times, that were merely meant to describe someone’s appearance to others, but were shown to be offensive, and once realised as such, fell out of use. By me, anyway.

    But it took time, because to start with, the people who were subjected to these terms, accepted them, due to being a minority, in order to ‘get along’. Therefore ignorance of the problem became rooted, and when objections were eventually raised to such terms, so were eyebrows. ‘Why didn’t you say so before?’ Gradually you realised why it had been harder for a minority group to do that.

    It is with those personal examples that I was perhaps more intrigued with the more recent idea of desensitising words such as ‘nigger’, than I was supportive or expectant of it to work – and it is not just rappers that tried it. I need only refer to Samuel L Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, and he was not the only one in that particular movie.

    (Warning; strong and possibly offensive language!)

    It hasn’t really worked, has it.

    I agree that the idea is flawed and was aimed inward when the problem was outward. It is not your own attitude to the word that should be changed, but of those who continue to use offensive words as descriptive terms.

    • “…it is not your own attitude to the word that should be changed, but of those who continue to use offensive words as descriptive terms.”

      What an excellent way to summarise the point :).

  11. Phil Ruse says:

    Best post I’ve read all week. Though I understand the idea behind “reclaiming the language” I think your comment – “the word is merely the vessel in which the initial thought is housed” – describes the problem perfectly. It’s those thoughts that need changing.

    • Many thanks for the generous feedback :). I think we are a long way off eradicating the problem, as there are too many reasons left for people to resent what others have; the prospects and potential they enjoy. However, social media is making the world a smaller place to live with each and every advance – so perhaps there is more hope after all :).

  12. I have no compelling argument in favor of using this word. You have much more effectively than I might have, conveyed what I have been thinking about this subject for years, since rap artists and others have begun “making it their own.” I don’t want to make it mine even though I, too, understand their point. I feel about it the way you have described here. Thank you for finding the words.

    • Thank you. I had to think it through again, just in case I was just being stubborn in my thoughts – but I keep coming back to the thought of being old enough to remember seeing why it will never be a word I would want to claim as my own. There are quite a few rappers that I think have (had) so much good to say, so I listen to their work but find myself attempting to listen around the word each time they spit it out.

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