Author Archives: Senya Hawkins

The Weight of the Word

I will be using language that may be offensive to some readers in this post. I do this so that I can discuss my blog topic plainly, and openly. If I offend anyone I apologize. And all feedback is welcome.

Words themselves are almost weightless. The way they sound to the ear, their given meanings, and the emotional intention and impact of their utterances is what gives them substance. Some words are so airy in their composition that they are able to drift from meaning to meaning without anyone taking notice. Conversely, there are words whose meanings and sound quality outweigh the intention with which they’re spoken. Nigger is one of these too heavy words that cannot be moved from its original position in our language. Nigger is a word that is beneath redemption. It cannot be made into a good or neutral word as long as the ringing of the perpetual drumbeat of white supremacy echoes when it is spoken and heard.

It has become popular to talk about reclaiming words that are hateful or abusive to a particular cultural group. When it comes to the “N” word, I prefer to use the term reappropriate rather than reclaim. When I think of reappropriation, I think of making another culture’s items (words, art, music) part of your culture to use as you like; but reclaiming means to take back something that was once yours. Nigger never belonged to black people. For more than four-hundred years, nigger was an identity assigned to dark skinned people all over the world by white English speaking cultures. Thus, I do not believe it to be the African American community’s to reclaim. Indians were called nigger, Native Americans and indigenous Australians were called nigger, and Arabs are currently called sand niggers. African Americans did not invent the “N” word. Black people used it to refer to each other, simply because to do so was to speak the English language. So it is more accurate to talk about taking this word, not taking it back.

Word reappropriation is a fundamental part of how language evolves over time. Word reclamation or reappropriation can occur either organically or consciously. Countless words phase in and out of use, invert their meanings, and sometimes change their meanings entirely without people knowing it ever had a different meaning. For example, the word nice use to mean foolish or clumsy, and to flirt use to mean to flick something or to jerk awkwardly. These words now of course have completely different meanings.
These meanings evolved organically over long periods of time, along with the English speaking civilizations in which they were being used.

Conscious reappropriation of a word happens in several ways. One way is that a group decides to use a pejorative word without changing its meaning or sound. This is done with the objective of taking prideful ownership of the meaning, thus changing the original emotional intent and impact of the word, such as with the disability community and the word cripple, or liberals with Obamacare. A second form of conscious reappropriation is when a group rejects the original definition of a pejorative word, and seeks to change the meaning by using the rejected word in an alternative way with a different meaning, such as the LGBTQ community with queer. Changing the way a word is pronounced, and consequently its sound, is also part of conscious reappropriation. For example, the African American community has tried replacing the hard sounding “er” at the end of nigger with an”a.”

Nigger is derived from the Latin word “niger” which means black. There is no pejorative element to the Latin original. It is simply an adjective. Niger became nigger over hundreds of years of evolution through western European languages. The “N” word evolved hand in hand with the evolution of Anglo-American imperialism, the African slave trade, and the general subjugation of people of color around the world. During this period of time the inferior status of African peoples was a scientific, religious, and cultural fact. To be black was to be an insignificant and contemptible sub-human whose best value was working fields, houses, and factories in order to provide for Anglo-American expansion. This is what it meant to be a black person, and so this is what it meant to be a nigger. Major distinctions between a black person and a nigger barely existed until the early 20th century as black people began to gain power and the right to define themselves.

Relatively recently there has been an attempt by some African Americans to consciously reappropriate nigger. They have done so by introducing the word into positive rather than demeaning contexts; by making it exclusive so that only blacks can say it, thus using nigger as a linguistic velvet rope separating black culture from white; by using it as a term of comradery rather than contempt; and by changing the harsher “er” ending to a softer and more open “a.” However, none of these strategies has reached the level of critical mass, in African American or American culture, needed to deem nigger reappropriated. Why not? For starters, many people both white and black still use nigger with its original meaning and intent. Many African Americans use nigger interchangeably with both negative and positive connotations which makes it difficult for the positive meaning to take a strong foothold. Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, black people are still wantonly and egregiously oppressed in this country. Nigger is not a simple adjective that represents a color like its predecessor. It is an adjective that represents the oppression of dark skinned people in this country, and elsewhere. My contention is that a word that describes a dynamic of oppression cannot be successfully reappropriated until that dynamic has dissolved from the fabric of the culture.

The debate over the possibilities for nigger continues within and without the African American community. Recently, the NFL, headed by white owners and a white commissioner, seriously considered making it a finable offense for any player regardless of skin color to say the “N” word on or off the field. Ultimately, no rule was made primarily because of the questionable optics of white owners legislating the use of the “N” word to black players. In an interview on the television show “Iconoclasts,” Maya Angelou discussed with Dave Chappelle the generational perspectives in the African American community around the use of nigger(a). “I believe words are things,” said Angelou, “when I see a bottle…that says poison…I know that it is poison…if I pour the contents of the bottle into Bavarian crystal it is still poison.” I don’t believe that nigger is the poison. I believe that the word nigger is the container that holds within its syllables the hate filled history and present of presumed African American inferiority. The reappropriation of nigger will signify the ends, but can not be the means by which social justice and equality are attained.

Understanding Integration

Social integration occurs when an established system changes to reflect the impact of a participating social group(s). It is usually a given that the social group seeking integration adapts in some way to be included in the system, but if the system itself remains the same, in policy and practice, as it was before the participation of the social group, integration has not taken place. In this era of aggressive political correcting, political terms must be defined accurately lest we be under the misconception that we’ve achieved something we haven’t.

Integration is used frequently to describe the inclusion or participation of a group in a previously segregated system. This is a dangerous misconception, because it encourages those who would seek systems change to stop short of their ultimate goal, and it releases the system of any obligation to fundamentally restructure itself. Due to this misunderstanding, partial integration can cause more damage than segregation, because the onus of assimilation occupy the thoughts and efforts of the group that is seeking equity, meanwhile anyone who demands change from the system may be met with the incredulous ardor of those who believe they already participate in an integrated system. (See post-racial society)

Calculus defines integration as the inverse of differentiation. Likewise the common understanding of social integration is as the inverse of segregation when in fact inclusion is a more accurate antonym. Part of the trouble with understanding integration as a social concept is that it is a mathematical term. Mathematics allows for exact inverses, resolvable inequalities, and absolutes whereas social systems do not. Social systems are continuously evolving as the people, ideas, and politics that shape the systems evolve. There are no absolutely true things one can say about any aspect of a socially constructed system, which is why socially constructed topics such as race, gender, and sexuality will continue to smolder in the heat of popular discourse.

Another specific factor that contributes to the misperception of social integration was the media’s portrayal of the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. One example is the so-called integration of the education system after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Contrary to common understanding, this ruling did not legislate integration; it legislated the right of African-Americans to participate in, and thereby be included in, previously segregated schools. Essentially, the ruling desegregated the education system, but it did not integrate it. The famous ruling decreed that even in cases in which resources are comparable, “separation is inherently unequal.” Furthermore, it stated that the currently adhered to statute of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. In other words, black students were granted the right to occupy the same physical space as their white counterparts, because being forced to attend separate schools created an inequality; however the inequity that existed and still exists for African-Americans under the education system was not addressed. There was no legislation to ensure that African-American cultural interests would be represented in the classroom, or that the education system would transform in any way to ensure that less dramatic forms of segregation and discrimination did not occur in these newly so-called integrated schools. Teachers who had previously taught only white students did not receive cultural competence training to learn about the cultural nuances of the African-American community, or about their own biases toward teaching black children.
The effects of policies that stopped short of integration in Brown v. Board of Education are partially reflected in the lower test scores, lower graduation rates, and higher drop-out rates for African-Americans and Latin-Americans. In addition, today many school districts resemble pre-1954 segregation due to gerrymandering and the repeal of previously effective local desegregation legislation.

People engaged in systems change work should take care not to feel that the struggle has ended when participation is granted, or inclusion has taken place. Participation and inclusion stand in such stark contrast to segregation that it is easy to become comfortable and satisfied with the hard work that was done to achieve these very visible, tangible components of change. Those who seek integration must stay vigilant to pursue the more subtle, more permanent, and more comprehensive components of change. We must continue our demands, which put pressure on the system to learn from the experiences afforded it by the inclusion of marginalized groups, and to incorporate the knowledge gained from those experiences in the restructuring of itself into a new and integrated whole.

Sex and Disability Support Group

Sexuality and Disability Support Group
Topic: Claim Your Desire
When: Wednesday, July 9th , 6:00 – 7:30 PM
Where: Ed Roberts Campus,
3075 Adeline Street Berkeley, CA

Great news! San Francisco based writer, teacher and somatic sex coach Pavini Moray will present sinformation about the benefits of sexological bodywork, as well as lead activities and a discussion about how we as people with disabilities can experience and express our needs and desires to partners, friends, and lovers. We will have a relaxed sharing session with them, which should spawn some interesting discussion.

Check out Pavini at

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi

Sex and Disability Support Group


When: Monday, March 10th, 6:00 – 7:30 PM

Where: Ed Roberts Campus, 3075 Adeline Street Berkeley, CA 94703

Fee: FREE! Please RSVP if you would like to RSVP directly to Heather click the link below:

This month we will have Dr. Heather S. Howard, who is an expert in the field of sexual rehabilitation and ergonomics come and talk with us about the innovative projects that she is working on. This session promises to be very impactful, and I for one am looking forward to walking away with more information about how to have more comfortable and pleasurable sex. Below is some more information about Heather. I look forward to seeing you all there!

Heather Howard, PhD, MPH, is a board certified sexologist and mind-mind health facilitator.  She founded the Center for Sexual Health and Rehabilitation ( to help clients adjust sexually to challenges and transitions such as chronic health conditions, trauma, and family building. She uses an educational approach to support embodiment, intimacy, comfort and pleasure and recently launched to provide ergonomic sexual adjustments related to physical limitations and pain.

In addition to her private practice work, Heather is an associate professor of clinical sexology at The Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS); a clinical skills instructor for the Stanford School of Medicine Obstetrics & Gynecology Department; and a gynecological teaching associate at Stanford, Touro, and UCSF medical schools through Project Prepare, where she teaches medical students to perform comfortable and effective breast and pelvic exams.

She received her BA from the University of California at Berkeley (1993), her MBA from New York University’s Stern School of Business (1995), and her PhD and MPH in human sexuality from IASHS (2008, 2012), where her doctoral research explored the potential for sexual response to augment the impact of pain management interventions for chronic pelvic pain.  She is board certified through the American College of Sexologists (ACS) and is a CE provider and certified sexuality counselor and educator through the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT).