Rev Irene Monroe

Can blacks rid themselves of the use of the n-word?

Filed By Rev Irene Monroe | August 19, 2010 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media
Tags: African-American, American lexicon, n-word, race relations, racial slurs

In an attempt to dole out advice on the n-word, popular talk radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger slipped into a rant using it.racpicpart8a.jpg

When a caller -- a distraught African American women who called in to be advised on how to handle racist jokes and comments hurled at her by her white in-laws and neighbors -- asked Schlessinger if it's okay to use the n-word, Dr. Laura needed advice before she advised.

"It depends how it's said. ...Black guys talking to each other seem to think it's OK," Schlessinger told the caller.

Whether used as an expletive or term of endearment, what is it about this word that captures the rage and shame of the American public?

In December 2006 we blamed Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sit-com "Seinfeld" for using the n-word. The racist rant was heard nationwide and shocked not only his fans and audience that night at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood but it also shocked Americans back to an ugly era in U.S. history.

In July 2008 we heard the Rev. Jessie Jackson used the n-word referring to Obama. And Jackson's use of the word not only reminded us of its history, but also how the n-word can slip so approvingly from the mouth of a man who was part of a cadre of African Americans leaders burying the n-word once and for all in a mock funeral at the 98th annual NAACP's convention in Detroit in 2007.

While it is easy to get sidetracked by raising queries about the tenor and intent of the repetitive use of the n-word in the context of supposed humor as in Richard's case, vilification as in Jackson's or advice as in Schlessinger's case, we must as Americans look at the systemic problem of what happens when an epithet like the n-word, which was once hurled at African Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society today.

Popularized by young African Americans' use of it in hip hop music, the bantering and bickering over this word today is no longer about who has been harmed or hurt by its use, but who has the right to use it, which is why Richards and Schlssinger were publicly pulverized, and Jackson wasn't.

But, our culture's present-day cavalier use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as Americans -- both White and Black -- have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of this epithet.

Many African Americans -- not just the hip hop generation -- state that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominant culture's use of it, and therefore the epithet gives only them a license to use it.

However, the notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while considering it racist for others outside the race unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.

African Americans' appropriation of the n-word as insiders neither obliterates the historical baggage with which the word is fraught nor obliterates its concomitant social relations among Blacks and between Whites and Blacks. Just because some African Americans use the term does not negate our long history of self-hatred.

The n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. However, today the meaning of the n-word is all in how one spells it. By dropping the "er" ending and replacing it with either an "a" or "ah" ending, the term morphs into one of endearment. But, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the "a" ending, and in the 1920s many African Americans use the "a" ending as a pejorative term to denote class differences among themselves.

In 2003, the NAACP convinced Merriam-Webster lexicographers to change the definition of the n-word in the dictionary to no longer mean African Americans but instead to be defined as a racial slur. And, while the battle to change the n-word in the American lexicon was a long and arduous one, our culture's neo-revisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.

Why? Because language is a representation of culture.

Language re-inscribes and perpetuates the ideas and assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.

Many activists argue that Richards' repentance at the time should be volunteer work in a predominately African American community anywhere in the county. However, he would find there too that many of us keep the n-word alive.

But what would work for us all is a history lesson, because reclaiming racist words like the n-word does not eradicate its historical baggage and its existing racial relations among us. Instead, it dislodges the word from its historical context and makes us insensitive and arrogant to the historical injustice done to a specific group of Americans. It also allows Americans to become unconscious and numb in the use and abuse of the power and currency this racial epithet still has, thwarting the daily struggle many of us Americans work hard at in trying to ameliorate race relations.


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Chitown Kev | August 19, 2010 3:28 PM

Ah, yes, the offensive use of the n-word by black to demean other blacks.

I wrote about this very offensive use of the n-word at JoeMyGod the other day.

Middle- and upper class blacks use the n-word in an offensive way to remind lower class and poor blacks where they are in life and lower class blacks use it on middle- and upper-class to remind them where they (presumably) come from.

Rev. Jackson's use of the n-word was highly offensive to me (loaded as it was with class coding)...so much so, that I felt really, really cynical when he was shedding his crocodile tears at Obama's Election Night speech.

Other than a couple of relatives, I can't think of a black person that has ever used the n-word as a term of endearment to me; it's always been used as a putdown.

I don't like the word, period, to be perfectly honest. (even though I have used it, for example, on a couple of Harry Jackson posts in the insulting way)

Angela Brightfeather | August 19, 2010 5:14 PM

At 65 years old, I have lived through times when this word was used on a regular and daily basis, to the present day when I only hear it from idiots like Dr. Laura or people of color on the street who are joking and jiving with each other.
I don't remember when I last said it out loud, but I will admit that it still lives in my mind when I see some things that remind me of when I was younger and it was said often by others. I never really used it back then to offend anyone. I have found that it is a lot easier to give up using the word, than it is to give up smoking and other vices in my lifetime. But I do want to thank President Obama for one thing. His being President has given me the opportunity to erase it from my memory once and for all and I say good ridance!!! I have found that he has given me the opportunity to respect and admire people of color, as has many of the Latino people that I work with in my company. But the one thing that has really erased it from my memory has been my saying "yes sir" and "yes mam" and being more respectful to all people I run across from convenient stores to board rooms. I must thank him for the opportunity he and others have given me over the years to forget about the prejudices of the past and my youth, as they have taught me to love and respect all people.

The problem with Dr. Laura is that she just doesn't like change, even if it is for the good and drives the old demons out of her memory. She doesn't want to live in a world without prejudice and alienation due to skin color. She hates diversity.

I never liked her and now I know why. She doesn't know how to deal with her own feelings, let alone try to tell others how to deal with theirs.

Thanks for your wisdom on this Irene. I also appreciated what Tim Wise said on CNN about the Dr. Laura incident. He pointed out that the racism in her comments was much broader than the use of the N-word. Dr. Laura dismissed the black caller's concerns, negated her experience, and told her she was just being too sensitive . . . all examples of white privilege.

Don't think this will ever be resolved in the way you hoped, Irene.

The same points could be made for the epithet "queer", and we see that debate is still going going on.

The problem is with expecting a generation to care, let alone empathize, with a past that is emotionally alien to them.

Can gays give up the f-word? I'm doubtful on both. :(

she was engaged in a full-on racist rant and the word popped out of her mouth eleven times

Bill. I don't think she was using the word to be racist. If you read the transcript, she never directly refers to anyone as a n-word. What she did was botch an attempt to make an argument against the n-word double standard. She tried to walk the razors edge of that argument but fell over. She was stupid, but not full-on racist as you say. IMO.

Btw, I've listened to Dr Laura for years, so I feel I have an accurate read on her. In fact, on the day it aired I was listening. I doubt most Bilerico readers can say the same. She was often judgmental and occasionally ignorant to the point of irritation, but many times she did pull good advice out of her hat. I refuse to pile on just because the hive mind tells me so.

I remember a white guy in college saying it's unfair that black people are allowed to use the n-word but white people aren't. I asked him why he wanted to use the n-word, but he didn't have an answer.

Dr. Laura didn't use the n-word in an emotionless discussion of philosophy and language; rather, she was engaged in a full-on racist rant and the word popped out of her mouth eleven times. I don't think it's a coincidence.

Instead of asking how we ban the word, maybe we should be asking people why they'd want to use it and go from there? It's interesting to me that the people who say that it's 2010, it's been reclaimed, it's OK if others use it, etc., seem the be the people most acutely aware of the baggage it carries.

Why would anyone want to use this word, Alex asks?

I am in total agreement that simply calling someone this term in order to insult them or dehumanize them is totally unacceptable. However, I do think there are historical, artistic, and stylistic reasons to use this word --- always with great thought and care.

Historically, authors such as Mark Twain, Langston Hughes, and many others, used this word throughout their writings --- and if someone writes about the 19th Century deep south, it can be difficult to produce historically convincing dialog without it. This is simply a fact of history that all Americans, black and white, must accept, that this word was used commonly. It wasn't right, but that's the way things were.

Artistically, as Dr. Jillian pointed out recently, this term can be used to great ironic effect, both in poetry and in comedy. The example I love to quote is Randy Newman's lyrics in his song Rednecks where he is obviously insulting the white racist and not the black folk: "We're rednecks, rednecks, don't know our ass from a hole in the ground ... and we're keepin' da niggers down!"

Stylistically ... this is harder to define, but I can give an example: When Tavis Smiley interviewed Will Smith on his PBS show, he once characterized "I, Robot" as another "nigger-gonna-save-the-world" movie. Since Smiley was simply making cynical fun of Hollywood formula scripts, and specifically a subset engineered to target black audiences and black dollars, his stylistic intent was obvious and no one raised an eyebrow. And they shouldn't have.

Personally, I think that "queer" has been successfully reclaimed. To me, anyone with a sexual variation other than cis and heterosexual is "queer". Since the laundry list of sexual variations is very long, this word is a convenient shortcut.

"Faggot" is similar to the n-word, and the rules are about the same. It is obvious when it is used as a direct insult, and such usage should be condemned. Yet, it has certain thoughtful ironic uses that are justifiable.

These words are like fire-eating: they should only be used by expert wordsmiths who know what they are doing. Rev. Irene, I love that you point out that language is alive, and mutates as it is used to express ever-emerging nuances in culture. The n-word is no different, and may it continue to appear when and only when its usage moves our discussion forward instead of backward.

OK, art, I'll grant that. I'm the last person who'd want to censor the arts.

But Dr. Laura isn't an artist (at least not the "pro" kind... maybe the "con" kind?). I think the question of "why" should definitely come up.

Anyway, I also agree about queer vs. faggot. I don't think that queer could be labeled a simple slur - there are far, far too many people who use it in a positive way to say that it's a slur. In fact, I can't remember ever hearing it as a slur, although I've heard it about a billion times positively. So it's weird some people insist on saying that it's the gay n-word.

Faggot, on the other hand... I'd hate to ban that word either, especially when there are people who use it positively too. But again, ask why, know the context, etc.

"... So it's weird some people insist on saying that it's the gay n-word."

Alex, you are too young to appreciate the "baggage" that the word "queer" once had --- in the 50's and 60's when I was growing up, it was indeed the sexual orientation equivalent of the n-word. Call someone "a queer" and that person was the lowest of the low.

But the reclamation of this term in recent decades has been remarkable, and objection to it today mostly comes from people of my generation and older who haven't updated their lexicon. Like the old chant, some of us aging LGBT folks need to realize "We're here, we're queer, get used to it."

I get that there was a lot of baggage, but my argument is that there is still a lot of baggage with the n-word that's mostly gone away from the q-word.

And it probably wasn't us who changed the word around. Homophobes stopped using it as an insult, and once again they were in the drivers' seat.

The closest analogue I have experience with is the word "tranny". With its own history full of erasure, violence, and sexual fetishization of trans women. I've known trans people that throw it around carelessly and it drives me crazy. Don't even get me started on the gay men that think it's some kind of trendy insult. I think words like that, that still carry a huge amount of weight, CAN be used in a reclaiming sense. But only if used sparingly and with care.

I remember my brother using the "n" word a lot while telling "ironic" jokes, but even before I learned the truth about racism (beyond what they teach in the classroom) it didn't sit well with me. "Ironic" jokes seem to grow into unquestionable racism in a sneaky, sinister way.

"Ironic" jokes seem to grow into unquestionable racism in a sneaky, sinister way.

Yes, Jamie, you make a very good point, that there is a specific danger with ironic uses. The speaker/writer has to be assured that the audience is sophisticated enough to tune in on the irony --- otherwise, you end up with semi-literate bigots saying openly racist/sexist/homophobic things at exact times when they are the only ones in the room who don't realize how clueless they are, such as, "Yeah, Chris Rock says he can't stand n-----s, and neither can I!"