The Burden of Being, The Weight of Words

A word as old as the slave trade has been in the news recently. Notorious N-bomb dropper Paul Mooney has sworn to never say it again, but Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Bernie Mac, DL Hughley et al have remained oddly mute on the subject.

On Sunday, Damon Wayans got fined $20 per n-word and was banned from the Laugh Factory for three months for repeated use of the word. News Radio disappointment Andy Dick just got some apparently much needed press by using the offensive slur.

Yesterday I read this interesting Slate.com article by Christopher Hitchens that tackled the negative effects of banning the “n-word.” It’s definitely worth a read for people who fall into the “the word should be banned” camp. It seems that we can go too far in our zeal to appear PC – the director of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams’s constituent services office was forced to resign after using the word “niggardly” in a sentence, which is just absolutely ridiculous in my opinion. He didn’t use the word to call someone a name, or scream it over and over again as Michael Richards did.

Having said that, I find it amusing that the negative words that refer to selfishness are always a form of ethnic slur – being “niggardly” is being cheap or unwilling to share, if someone tries to financially screw you over, the words “jew” and “gyp” come into play. The recent controversy of the “n word” reminds me of that South Park episode where they say “shit” over 100 times, and it is revealed that the word itself is cursed, and that saying it too often will mean the destruction of society. For a while, I think comedians like Dave Chappelle had lampooned it so effectively that the word had been robbed of its power. Apparently not.

In the recent episode of Iconoclasts, Maya Angelou addressed the issue, and Dave remonstrated gently, but ultimately deferred to the older, wiser poet.

Like it or not, the word isn’t going anywhere. Just like racism. African-Americans have adopted it as a greeting of camraderie, and it’s in like 80% of all hip-hop songs released in the past decade. I realized recently, when listening to Jay-Z’s “Brush Your Shoulders Off,” it wouldn’t make a huge difference if the word was replaced with another. The song would still be a club-banger if Hova decided to never use it again. But that simply isn’t going to happen, not in America, and not in my country.

I got to thinking about the N word in Trinidadian culture after reading one of the most beautifully written, poignant blog posts I’ve ever read, written by my high-schoolmate, journalist and activist Attilah Springer. Seriously, you all should read it. Let her words sink in.

In the post she eloquently describes the difficulty of being a dark skinned woman in today’s cruel world: “I am that unacceptable shade of black. My hair that unrelaxed nappiness of defiance.Because of the way I look, I am always one step from becoming the vagrant girl in St. James. Always one step from the gutter. Always a target for men to spit their contempt and venom.” This came after a series of emotionally wrenching exchanges and events, one of which took place in a taxi. The driver spewed the same phrases I have heard my whole life, “Nigger feel like you doing them a favor.”

If your skin is of a certain shade but your hair remains coarse, Trinis call you a “red nigger.” If your behaviour is gauche, embarrassing, and crude, you’re called an “old nigger.” (here, I’ll use it in a sentence. “He was carrying on like one old nigger. A fus I was shame.”) The tiredness that occurrs after a heavy meal is called “niggeritis.” The word bubbles into Trinidadian conversation unbidden and too often, with nary a thought as to its history or effect. Here in America it’s being debated and written about, and people seek to have it banned. But it ain’t going nowhere.

So what are intelligent black people to do?

Whenever my friends or family members use it, I generally give them the people’s eyebrow and keep it moving. I have American friends who have used it affectionately with me, but I never respond in kind. (notably, none of these friends are black. Although some of them might wish they were). I could be that person who goes on a diatribe whenever they get offended, but often that person doesn’t get listened to. I prefer to lead by example.

I personally never use the word, unless quoting what someone else has said. Even then, the word feels foreign and wrong coming out of my mouth.

Attilah’s words made me cry, but her writing made me feel uplifted. Even though hatred exists, and the saying “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” isn’t necessarily true, at least people are thinking and questioning the use of this ancient ethnic slur.

I already said that I am not a mutt, and it goes without saying that I am nobody’s nigger, nigga, or however you want to spell it. What I am, is young, gifted, and black. I think we’ve moved so far as a society from the Civil Rights movement and the freedoms our ancestors fought for, that we have lost sight of who we are and what we deserve to be called. So here. Listen, remember.

I’m interested in hearing your views on the “n word.” How does it make you feel when people say it? Does it bother you, or not? Do you use it yourself? Do you think it should be banned? I know we’ve come a long way, but damn – how much further do we all need to go?

On a totally unrelated note, I’m going on vacation, bellas – I’ll be out till Monday. I will try to do a post while soaking up the Californian hospitality, but it might not happen. If it doesn’t, have a wonderful weekend and I’ll be back in full force on Tuesday with new product reviews and a belated Afrobella of the Week!

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Comments

  1. Yay, have fun in Califronia, please don’t forget your sunscreen. i don’t use the word, and i have no friends who use the word. when i was in school i was often called n*****, but when i didn’t respond the way they wanted me to they moved on to the next victim. maybe i have been hardened, for me it was “you’re so pretty for a dark girl, your a red n*****, how come you talk like that”. so there has always been somebody that was trying to find something wrong with me.the crazy thing is that it came/comes from Caucasian as well as other brown folk. there are words that get to me but n***** aint one of em.

  2. My 7th grade teacher taught us that words only have the power we give them. For the most part I agree with her, but sometimes words hurt. I have never once been called a nigger by someone who meant it “that way,” so I’ve never been hurt by it. However, I have been hurt by the use of the word “Blackie” by a classmate in kindergarten and the teacher who wouldn’t make her apologize; the words “she doesn’t fit in” by a classmate’s mother when she called to un-invite me from a sleepover; and other words said with venom, but not otherwise banned from our common lexicon. Think of how the word “special” has come to be just as bad to use as “retarded” was two decades ago, or how “disabled” isn’t really all that different now than “handicapped” although it started out as the PC term-du-jour. I think my problem with Michael Richards had less to do with his use of nigger and more to do with his vile descriptions of lynching and his comment that “black men need to learn not to speak when white men are speaking.” If we continue to focus on the words, and not what is actually being said, we’re never going to get past it. At least, that’s how I feel about it. Great thought-provoking post as always!

  3. Thanks Ms.Bella for always leaving me in deep thought..Yes I have used the word in the past…mostly before I became ” aware” now I don’t use the word..and find no amusement with those that do…It is a product of slavery pure and simple to me..no matter what we so to make it ” acceptable” it never will be…at least I don’t think so…while I like you never believe that the word will be “banned” I think that we all should think twice before we embrace a word that represents hate…suffering..and intolerance

  4. While I don’t think that the word will be/should be “banned” per se, I don’t use the word, but I have friends that do. I find it disheartening that a word that was used to denegrate us and dehumanize us, many of us have embraced. It is embarrassing when I take the train and hear a group of young black guys say it every other word. But do I think it will go away? Nah..

  5. coiltastic says:

    i use the word. and i don’t only use it when speaking of other black people. it’s universal to me. and it doesn’t make me want to cry or march when someone says it to me or about me (friends and the same race as myself…haven’t been called the word too many other times by non-blacks). i think this sudden need for a ban is ridiculous and i find it kind of offensive for people to say i can’t use a word anymore. so sorry because i will be using it. and i cannot imagine paul mooney’s comedy without using the word. he should strongly rethink that move lol.

    but seriously i think we as black people should stop calling attention to ourselves with this type of tom foolery by asking for a ban of a word. you do not see other races doing such things and they are also called ”derogatory” names. this to me shows that we are constantly looking for a crutch. are we not strong enough people yet not to let a word rule us and make us feel ashamed and less than?? the word shouldn’t bother you that much if you truly believe we have advanced in society and that there is hope that we will continue to move upward. maybe many people don’t believe this. but you cannot expect the ban of a word to make our race any stronger, more powerful, or better people. doesn’t it go something like this “actions speak louder than words” let’s just be real with ourselves here.

  6. We use it in Haiti to say Guy, it’s part of the creole, but we also use mulatresse to describe mixed people, which is demeaning. I hate when blcak people use the “n” word. I know my ancestors did not fight for that. we need anew black movement, not only in the US,but every black nation to remind us that black is beautiful. And they defenetly need to teach children more about African civilization. They know nothing of the history and that ‘s sad

    Great Article AfroBella!!

  7. Hello,
    I have never commented on a blog however I am a 30 year old “mutt” I have been mistaken for almost every race.I feel as though the word nigger does not define myself or any other person of color. It is a word for people that want to box and sell negative images.I have lived with black and white and have seen destruction in every race and I have also seen the Love.

    Peace&Love Caster

  8. great article! i’m not sure banning is the right thing to do, but in this society i’m cool with it. the ban in my eyes, would be used to show people that it’s not part of pop culture, socially acceptable, or cool– social disapproval.
    personally, i try my best not to use it. i feel that if i don’t like hearing anyone else say it, then i shouldn’t say it and it begins with me. i usually close my ears to it if i don’t want to hear it (i.e. turn off the radio, remove myself from situations.) i also don’t like to tell other (adult) blacks how or when to use the word, but if you are around me you can sense my disapproval. things especially change when a child is involved. negative words are not allowed in my home. sounds superficial and i’m not sheltering my son, but somethings he just doesn’t need in his environment at a young age.

  9. btw, bella have a great vacay!

  10. Afrobella,
    I use the word jokingly, but not as a term of endearment or when in anger. I may joke and wonder how certain people use the word. I also do not use hoe, bitch, MF as terms of endearment either. In this day and age, we need to lift each other up. Culturally, Black people may be different i.e. Black North American (including native born Blacks in US or Canada), West Indian, African, Black Europeans, et al, but ultimately we are all the same and we need to learn about each other.

  11. I use the word & not ashamed. I recently did a blog about it & was not surprised to see the reactions at all.

    The word Nigga will forever divide the community & we need to recognize that words just don’t disappear. If things just disappeared because people were frightened or offended by them, then we would not have many social ills in. Homelessness, HIV/AID, Crack Heads etc. Let’s ban sex & drugs to see how far we can get first, then deal with banning language.

    IMHO, words/phrases that need to be banned are “The N-Bomb” & “The N-Word”. Why tip-toe around language?

    When I am engaged in conversation or hear other conversations with “my people”
    & someone says Nigga, I am not shocked or put off.

    If on the other hand it was not “my people” saying Nigga/Niggers/Nigras then there would be a problem. I stand firm in the distinction in the 2 worlds.

    Peace,
    Bygbaby

  12. ‘That which you resist, persists.’

    Let’s focus on adding – love, communication, communal work – as opposed to trying to subtract oxygen or the sun. Banning words and other insane campaigns are actually larger symbols of black dysfunction than the so-called N-word.

    Words don’t lynch, build prisons, start wars, fly drugs into the ghetto, or create aids. People do. We should do real things to prevent those people from doing those kinds of things to us. When?

    Bottomline: If we personify the opposite of that which we decry, we’ll go a lot further in ‘convincing’ or stimulating change in others. People don’t tend to change when you wag a finger in their face and tell them “bad boy.”

  13. Hi Afrobella,

    I just discovered your website and love it, so thanks for the awesome effort you must put in.

    On topic, I’m an Australian girl of South African heritage. My family is coloured so I get mistaken for everything from Mauritian to Spanish and Arabic. I’ve never been called a n*, because my colouring just doesn’t warrant it, but for my part, my parents have raised me to be as colourblind as is reasonable, while respecting people’s differences, so the n word doesn’t enter my vocab.

    Banning it would be too far, but people should use their discretion and know the meaning before letting fly. I like your way of thinking, leading by example is the best way.

  14. I have used and said the word nigga. After a while, frankly the word got kinda played out with me, and then in each and every song or exchange between black folk it started to be used again. I believe in the power of words and the power of intent. I also understand that you have to look at words in the content they are used and the audience you are speaking to. Nigga or nigger – that word is not going away. In our culture (American) whateva blacks say or do is followed from music to clothes to words/slang. When examining that, I know that whites are going to continue to use this word because it is use by us towards us in an open medium, music. Whether the words does not hurt us as adults, the idea of someone who is white bending down to your child and saying what a cute lil’ nigga baby is gonna piss you off. I do not care how you feel about the word as an adult. If someone gets up and says something derrogatory to our babies its on! The word is a charged word in our society because of its history. Yes, we are attempting to make it so that it does not hurt or demean us anymore, but if someone brings that historical reference with it, let’s be honest, all hell breaks loose. If someone attempts to injure a child’s psyche with it, be them black or white or any color all hell breaks loose. The word will not go away, that is true, however I feel we need to examine if by putting it out there in open society on the daily, are we giving them the right to say it like they say the word bling etc. and are we really prepared to deal with that? At present I think the answer for a lot of us is no. It is for me.

  15. First off, I never use the word because so many using as a slur. Secondly, the word niggard has old English roots meaning a stingy miserly person. Nigger came from Negro which has nothing to do with niggard. Love ya.

  16. I work on not being affected by words. I subscribe to the belief that someone outside of me CANNOT make me feel less than I already do. I do not believe I am a “nigger” in the historical sense of the word so someone calling me that or referring to me as one does not bother me. My relationship to the word is completely detached. It doesn’t carry any more power than I give it. I believe that a person cannot hurt you. You choose to be hurt by what a person says or does. I am NOT what a person calls me. I am NOT what another person THINKS I am. I do, however, understand the history of the word and do not detach from that.

  17. LBellatrix says:

    I do not use the word, nor do I like it used around me in any form (“a” or “er”). Like you, I’ve got that “people’s eyebrow” thing down. ;)
    Having said that, I think this latest weapon of mass distraction (banning the word) is ri-damn-diculous, as they say. How in the hell are you just going to up and BAN a word? And what exactly is that going to do to further race relations in this country?
    For a second I thought that the Michael Richards incident was going to get white people to really start thinking and talking about their true feelings and assumptions towards people of color. Then here comes Jesse “Unelected President of Black America” Jackson trying to start some stupid campaign to get rid of the word. PLEASE! It’s too late! Hitchens is right on the money. If it’s not “nigger,” it’ll be something else.
    Until we get to the root of the problem we’re never going to see any real progress.

  18. I use the word. I think it falls in line with how you address those that are closest to you. Just as I don’t want some stranger calling me mother mom, I wouldn’t want someone who I wasn’t close to calling me the N word. I’ve heard white people refer to each other in derogatory terms as well, but they laugh it off among friends. As far as banning the word, that is taking it too far. I also feel that there is a double standard. Black people get upset when someone uses that word, but I’ve been to numerous comedy shows where the comedian referred to white people as crackers, red-necks, and any number of other terms that I would think they might be offended by, and no one sees a problem with that. Ultimately, people just need to learn to respect one another, that is the only solution. Banning the word isn’t going to improve anything.

  19. my main problem with the word is the fact that people who are not black will use it to refer to you even when it is known that you do not like the word.

    People don’t generally call whites rednecks to their face unless they are being insulting or know the person doesn’t mind the reference. I hate that people think you are uppity if you don’t use the word to refer to yourself or others.

    Besides I agree with bygbaby, that Black America has more pertinent issues than n – word. But i guess circular arguments around the n – word are easier than breaking ground on the more serious issues

  20. this topic is also being discussed on another cool site, http://www.afronerd.com. the site is run by a young man with a conservative view on topics that relate to the Black community.

  21. I think Letrice and LBellatrix nailed it. “Weapon of Mass Distraction?!” Do ya’ll really think the Revs Jesse and Al are a part of the “revolution?” Keeping people fired up when a white guy uses the word nigger, when the conditions of Aids, incarceration, drug addiction, etc are ravaging our community – YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS??!!

    Where are their efforts around these issues? Nonexistent. No rallies, press conferences, organizing our people at the grassroots level to fix these problems. No, its all about getting ‘air-time.

    Don’t believe the hype. Everybody that’s brown ain’t black. Everybody that takes up your cause, ain’t for you. We have to become more sophisticated.

    Words cannot harm you unless someone trains you like – Pavlov’s dog – to growl and bark about a damn word yet remain silent and sit while the ceiling caves in around you.

    When we free ourselves of the internalized nigga in us, we won’t need debates like this one; we’ll be on a higher plane.

  22. PREACH Bella!!
    Words hurt. No matter how much we may try to train outselves to feel otherwise, or how much we may try to desensitize ourselves to them… they hurt. I agree with the banning of the N-word. To me, it’s akin to the legislation requiring the integration of public schools. In the beginning it was very unpopular, and those who refused to integrate had start private schools, but eventually it brought about a real change in attitudes. Hopefully, banning the N-word will bring about a true change in attitudes. Our younger generations will stop referring to themselves as “N!gga’s” and see themselves as the beautiful people that they are. I don’t see anything beautiful about a “N!gga”.

    One quote that comes to mind is from India.Arie – “The words that come from your mouth, you’re the first to hear. Speak words of beauty and you will be there.”

    I know it’s a bit simplistic to imply that if people speak pretty words, they’ll live in a pretty world. I’m just sayin’, I think the world would be a better place without the N-word.

  23. Unfortunately, the word won’t go away. Words can and often do hurt. Words matter tremendously. Bella, your blog is a wonderful example of the power of language/words to heal and to educate – to do good. And if words can heal, they can mostly certainly wound. I expect ignorant white folks to use the word, so M. Richard’s use of the word didn’t hurt my feelings. The fact that black folks think this word is okay (especailly when used to address each other) hurts me deeply.

  24. Words hurt – when you’re a child, when you’re immature, when you haven’t stepped into your own power, or evolved into the idea that you control the impact of things directed at you; when you have a victim mentality. This, more than words is the root of our problem.

    We are eternal victims and instead of the Kings and Queens we really are.

    When Michael Richards said his peace, many responded as if programmed; because we have been programmed. Programmed to be weak and feel weak; programmed to feel hurt and be hurt – by words.

    Words CAN’T hurt you unless you’ve been taught to allow them to. You can be untaught, which I think some of us have been trying to say. Some of us want to remain where we are, keep the same buttons, stay stuck on ‘powerless’ and that’s fine.

    I’ve been called nigger twice in the last month by two white people. For not one second did I feel hurt. Why? Because they both were telling on themselves, not me. I didn’t wince, tear up or feel I was the nigga they were talking about.

    Michael Richards was telling on himself and white America in general. To me that was good news; I like it when people unmask themselves and show their true nature. So many get hung up on facades – Jesse, Sharpton – that they wouldn’t know the truth if it called a demo in their jacuzzi.

  25. It seems like the use of the word (or lack of use of it) is NOT the issue after reading all of the comments. Based on what I read, some people are hurt by the fact that others are trying to label them based on what THEY think they are. Would you be insulted, angered, or hurt if you were called another derogatory term? What if someone called you a spick or a wetback or a fag? Would you get offended? I hope I’m not disrespecting you by answering the question for you but I’m ASSUMING (my assumption right?) that the answer would be a resounding NO. (Maybe I’m not right though) Would those terms hurt less because they don’t apply to you, your history, or your experience or would they hurt less (or maybe even not at all) because they ARE NOT who you are? Maybe they would hurt you but the one thing I am sure of is that I’m not a NIGGER/NIGGA/NIGRA. I am an expression of my Creator. Whenever I choose to believe that I am anything less than THAT, I need to check myself. You cannot be what another wants you to be without giving yourself permission to be what they want you to be. How can anyone else identify a whole race of people? Who defines us? Who gives us our worth? I’m not going to grab my sense of self from anyone else but my Creator.

  26. i echo the sentiment of a previous commentor. it wasn’t so much “kramer’s” use of the n-word that bothered me, it was the whole sentiment behind his words. (e.g., references to lynching, etc.) that was very unexpected and disturbing. and now we’ve “got his number.”

    i used to occasionally use the word in casual conversation, but after taking a class and reading so many historical novels written by both white separatists and black novelists during the post-slavery era, the real intent of the word is now clearer to me and it literally sickens me to hear it said by friends and family.

    i’m now one of “those people” who says, “oh, please, please don’t use that word. it’s so ugly.”

  27. Jay-z is culturally ,politically and financially in a position to permanently erradicate N—- from the Hip-Hop vocabulary. THAT would be a legacy!!

  28. Jay-z, is culturally ,politically and financially in a position to permanently erradicate N—- from the Hip-Hop vocabulary. THAT would be a legacy!!

  29. when people of my own race use the “n” word I don’t get offended because they gave it another whole meaning as in “friend”, “homegirl/homeboy”, and/or “buddy”. They mean no harm. When someone outside of my race calls me the “n” word, yes, I would get offended because a certain race preferably a group of Caccacines has not been through what my ancestors had to go through, and it hurts me because they have no idea what pain is. Yes, their ancestors may have gone through some struggles like the Irish and the Germans but I feel that African Americans and our ancestors have been through much more in the past and that pain still continues to this day. On behalf of myself I’m young but mature. I do use the “n” word only if I am trying to call someone ignorant or uneduacated when it’s true no matter what race they might be.

  30. I am born and raised in The Netherlands so the N-word isn’t a part of the duth language. But we do listen to rapmusic from the US and that is how we are also exposed to the word. What pisses me off is young people who are a part of my race are coppiying the word coz it’s cool. Not knowing the history or true meaning of it, I’m mixture of West indian, Antillian and African people. Never have I felt that I was a nigger neither shall I ever feel that way.

  31. The word “niggardly” or a “niggard” is NOT an ethnic slur. It has *nothing* to do with the n-word or black people, never has been, never will be. It may superficially sound the same, if mispronounced, but the idea that this is an ethnic slur is incorrect.

  32. Here’s another reader from the Netherlands.
    The situation here is somewhat similar to the situation in the US, but at the same time it’s not. I’ll try to explain it.

    We have two words, that are similar to negro (neger) and nigger (nikker). Yet, in our dictionary, neger refers to nikker and more ‘strong terms’ like that. Neger is quite a ‘normal’ word in our everyday language, but lots of people don’t like the word because of its history and what it implies (I guess the meaning of it is defined by who uses it in what context, just like other people here stated before).

    A couple of months ago, a company that makes the chocolate candy angel kisses (named ‘negerzoen’, which translated would be ‘kiss from a negro’) changed the name into ‘kisses’, because people were complaining about the use of the word neger. That says a lot about the feelings towards the word, which is not the general feeling. The general feeling is: ‘it is not meant in a harmful way and there are greater problems out there so shut up’.

    The situation here is quite different from in the USA, because of two things:
    - Black people in the USA feel they are Americans and they belong there, while here, everyone who is not white is not Dutch and feels not Dutch, no matter what this person’s passport may say (very generally speaking off course). We even have special terms for people whose parents were born abroad. The other difference, is that nigger is not common here. But I see it is becoming more and more accepted, mostly by urban youth because they take rap music and black entertainers as examples. Nigger is like our nikker, and everyone knows that is a ‘bad’ word. It can’t be used in a positive way, so when someone says it, you know they intend to hurt/downgrade you.

    For short: I never use nigger nor nikker. Neger as in negro, I do use, to refer to black people in general and only in my own social circle, because I know there are people that are very offended by the word.

    OK, hope my message comes through. We Dutch people always think we’re excellent in English, but when you have to speak or write in it, it’s kinda tough. Loooove your blog Afrobella!

  33. Great post. I don’t know if I could add anything diverse enough to add substance to what has been written before me. But people underestimate the power that words have, definitely. And thank you for linking to your friend’s post.

  34. I am a white girl in Australia and am really into Hip Hop. I often sing along and try to rap… It’s really quite pathetic! But I get confused singing or rapping when that word comes up. For example in “Jigga that N’” by Jay Z. Even alone, I look around like ‘Should I be saying this?’. I’ve never said the word to a black person and I dont agree with the negative white connotations assosiated, but I still get kind of scared when it rolls around.
    In Australia we dont have many black people, and those who are are mostly from Africa. I recently went to Hawaii and met two lovely African American women and I found a strange feeling that I had to watch my words.. Even though I felt nothing negative towards them.
    I think maybe it’s just the stigma of being white among black people.
    Im in no way racist, I want to make that clear, but I still feel a bit strange when that word comes up in a song or meeting an African American.
    I dunno…

  35. Island Princess says:

    The fact is that I chose not to use the N-word because, as you stated Afrobella, it is foreign to me. While I understand where the Black defenders and users of the word are coming from, in their attempts strip it of its dehumanizing power, the fact still remains that the people who initially gave the word its power still hold on to its ascribed power. Therefore, while many of us when using the word have a totally different understanding and objective for it, there are many, for whom (both Black and White), the dehumanizing status still stands. In addition, while many of us assert that the word has now been reinvented to be a term of endearment, why do so many of us get so offended when it is used by someone of a different race? I think that our reaction to outsiders using the N-word is a clear indication that it is still embedded with it given dehumanizing power. As a result, I think that many of us need to take a different approach to the N-word.

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