[Note, this post originally comes from the Sparrowhawkkārearea blog]
Yup, offensive words are used in this post. There is a point to it, ‘kay?
So 61 people have registered objections to the National Geographic Board’s proposal that the Canterbury place-names Niggerhead, Nigger Hill and Nigger Stream be changed to Tāwhai Hill, Kānuka Hill and Pūkio Stream respectively. And the cute little poll appended to this article reckons 59% of respondents want to keep the N-names.
I don’t know why the objectors are objecting. It might be for perfectly legitimate reasons, for example some genuine issue with the proposed new name. (The earlier proposal for Nigger Stream was for it to be renamed ‘Steelhead Stream’ after a kind of trout, but Cantabrians sensibly pointed out that this trout doesn’t swim in that stream – hence the new Pūkio proposal).
But for the rest of them, (and those in the poll) who now apparently have some emotional attachment to these old names what the heck are they thinking? There is no nice historical provenance to these names to get all misty-eyed over. Check out the report here. There are, for example three ‘Darkies’ place-names in Westland. These names appear to refer to ‘Darkie’ Addison, a highly successful African-American prospector in the 1860’s. Fair call. I would not weep if they were changed, but nor woud I object: they mean something and tell you something about the place. The closest we can get with ‘Niggerhead’ is that it was a name for type of grass common to the area that…well, grows in clumps. Hence the allusion, right? Classy. Bollocks to keeping that name, when the perfectly good Māori name for that plant (Pūkio) will do the trick.
So, if name history gives us nothing, if there are perfectly good and meaningful names that could otherwise be used that connect to the flora and fauna of the place, and if the current names are simply offensive to all right thinking people, where the hell are some of these objections coming from? Gee. Given that the names suggested to replace these epithets are all Māori, I dunno. Could it be simple racism? I’ll leave that for others to decide.
I am old enough to remember how common the word used to be in 1970s/1980s Christchurch. One of my mother’s favourite sayings was ‘nigger in the woodpile’ referring to an unforeseen problem. As a kid I used to parrot ‘Eeny-meeny miney mo catch a nigger by the toe, if he squeals let him go…’. I don’t talk about woodpiles to my kids, and tigers are pretty good squealer replacements. I also remember a handstand game we used to play at Paparoa St School (and maybe Heaton Intermediate) where us girls would chant “Nigger, nigger pull the trigger, pop, bang GO!”, where we would do a handstand on the “GO” and the person who stayed up the longest won. These were mere words to us, and I don’t for one moment ascribe to those long ago kids nefarious intent.
Language means something. Public and casual racism in the labels and idioms we use exclude and divide, and the intent behind the repetitive use of the words don’t matter. There is no room for misplaced sentimentality for an old teensy piece of language popular in Canterbury that meant nothing positive to anyone and merely serves to alienate Māori, African Americans or any other dark-hued person from the rest. We cannot really control the language of others (and nor do I want to), but changing the names would be easy, pain-free, and somehow meaningful.
Here’s to a better environment where such words truly are unusual, not quaint and ‘of their time’, where they jar and shock us, and are consequently freely rejected as the lexical bastards they are.