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Yes, I use the N-Word

At times, a white person might have more of a justification for using the n-word than I do.  OK, let me be more specific:  I believe TWO white people in particular have more of a justification than I do.

In a matter of three weeks recently, two different CNN reporters said the n-word on live TV while reporting stories about hate crimes.  One reporter, talking about a case in Mississippi, quoted the suspect as saying he had run over “that f’ing n—–.”  The reporter edited himself on the use of the f-word but didn’t edit himself on the use of the n-word.  That garnered CNN and the reporter a bit of criticism because it seemed the reporter was not comfortable saying a profanity on the air, but he’s OK saying arguably the most offensive word in the English language, the n-word.  Weeks later, while reporting on the shooting spree in Tulsa that allegedly targeted African-Americans, another CNN reporter actually said, “f—ing n—–,” when quoting a Facebook post by one of the suspects.  She didn’t edit herself on either word.

Debates about how journalists report stories with offensive language are nothing new.  Some say it’s OK when it’s in context and even necessary to report the story.  Others say journalists should use restraint and be able to get the point across without explicitly using such offensive words.  For the sake of this conversation, let’s give the two CNN reporters the benefit of the doubt.  (I happen to know both reporters and worked with them for years, and they are good, decent people and solid journalists.)  Let’s assume they were doing honest reporting and had the best of intentions to put the stories in graphic context.  That’s reasonable.  And, that’s their justification for using the n-word.  So, what’s mine?  I’m black, so I can.  That’s pretty weak.

Honestly, anytime I hear the n-word come out of any white person’s mouth (Gwyneth Paltrow’s included), I cringe. Whether I hear it from a white character in a movie or a white reporter telling a story, it makes me uneasy.  I can’t help it.  But, if asked to explain why they used the n-word in their reporting, the two CNNers could make their case, agree with it or not.  Ask me to explain why I used the n-word 20 times in a conversation with my best friend at dinner last night, I don’t have much of a case to make.  In fact, I don’t have any case to make.  Yes folks, I too use the n-word, and I assure you I’m not using it in order to put anything in context.  I often use it casually and sometimes constantly.  I have no real logic behind using the word, but for whatever reason, I’m given somewhat of a pass by society because I’m black.

But, as Rob Fields pointed out in his op-Ed on Loop21 earlier this year, there may be consequences of my use of the word:

“Show me another ethnic/racial group that’s worked as hard as we have to either reclaim a word used to dehumanize them or force it into global circulation.

Remember when Michael Jackson said “Jew me” and “kike me” in “They Don’t Care About Us”? That entire album, HIStory: Past, Present and Future, Book 1, was pulled and reissued. Why? Because Jews maintain a morally defensible position: They were not then, nor are they now perpetuating the idea within their community, let alone to a global audience, that either of those words are worth reclaiming.” (http://loop21.com/life/don%E2%80%99t-blame-eva-hoeke-blame-us)

Clearly, the black community has come to a different conclusion about the n-word.  Fields argues that in “reclaiming” the n-word (and all its variations) we have popularized, globalized, and normalized its usage which can be confusing to those — especially a younger generation — outside our community.  And, given the out-sized impact black culture has on popular culture, the n-word might not seem so bad or so foreign to non-blacks who hear us use the word with such regularity and with such nonchalance.  Still, even if a younger generation of non-blacks doesn’t fully understand the history of the n-word, everyone understands a general rule:  we (blacks) can say it, and you (everybody else) can’t.  Beyond that, I really can’t give you a good reason why I use it.  I like saying it?  It’s the most accurate way of describing certain people?  It’s how I want to express my deep affection for my male friends?  None of those reasons really fly.

One thing I’ve never done is use the n-word in a public setting.  I’ve never said it outside of a circle of my close friends and family.  And, I wouldn’t dare.  I’ve never said it in a news report, in a business meeting, at a social gathering, or in front of a crowd of people, even if that crowd was made up exclusively of blacks.  That suggests I clearly recognize how vile the word is and that it shouldn’t be used at all, by anyone.  My problem has been that no one ever held me accountable for my, at times, gratuitous use of the n-word.  So, while I can toil endlessly about who I do and don’t mind saying the n-word, I never stopped to think that maybe there are people who don’t want to hear that word from ME.  There are plenty of black people who don’t want to hear fellow blacks use the n-word, but we give each other a pass.  Stop.  Sure, go ahead and hold the two CNN reporters and Gwyneth Paltrow accountable and give them a chance to explain themselves.  But, make me explain myself as well.  Poet and author Oliver Goldsmith said that “every absurdity has a champion who will defend it.”  Using the n-word 20 times during a casual conversation is absurd.  And, I can’t defend that.

So, for all intents and purposes, this will be my last “nigga.”

Comments

Phyllis Fair
Reply

Thanks for letting the word RIP.

The word means ignorant. However, it rarely is the first meaning of the word in the dictionary and in some cases it’s never included.

Vanzell
Reply

c’mon son!!! you know that you have said it at least 20 more times since you wrote this… lol
but don’t give up the fight to eradicate it from your vocab, that would be a very good thing. I’ll pray for you and you pray for me for both of us to do our part to send that word back to the put in hell from which it came…
~Shalom

Bryan
Reply

So true. If I use the “N” word, it’s as an insult. The word has always been an insult, and always will be. I can’t stand the “term of endearment” argument because the person telling it never thinks about the adverse effects of that word being used so freely. The flipside is that suburban white kid who watches MTV, BET, and Shade45. Then we want to get mad when we hear that kid use the “N” word? It’s so hypocritical that it’s just plum dumb. Like TJ said, “why should I get a pass?”

When will we realize that there are so many positive things that we have already created that WE already own? Sometimes, flying the flag upside down isn’t as good as creating a new flag…

davisbacon
Reply

Good post. I feel you on not wanting to use that hateful term no more, but I don’t think black folks in general are going to stop using it anytime soon.

Getting white people to stop using the term, we’ve made some kind of progress. I’m white — I won’t even use the term in referring to it. I use a roundabout *reference* to it, — “n-word.” That’s a conscious attempt to acknowledge the grievous harm inflicted on blacks throughout this country’s history.

It’s not much of an apology, but it is *something*. And it’s continual, not a monument that you build once and forget; every time it comes up, there’s a reminder. If I ever have to refer to it, in conversations on race — in this comment — I abjure its use. And I’m not just complying with a social constraint. I’m acknowledging a social/historical reality.

Here’s a question: why *wouldn’t* blacks revel in using the term? Is it possible that by employing the “n-word” blacks tacitly acknowledge its history, and given that, feel *pride* in having triumphed in the face of so much oppression? In other words, could using the “n-word” be secretly self-affirming?

Or, maybe it evokes a sense of community. If whites can’t use the term, then use of it by blacks is an assertion of black identity. Even though the term is still often used disparagingly. So what. Is there love behind the disparagement, at least some of the time? Most of the time? I don’t know, I’m just asking, but I think I detect some of that self-love, even in disparagement. Like the way a New Yorker can use insults as a term of endearment. Sort of.

I just wonder sometimes if when a black friend says “n—-” he’s not secretly *rejoicing* in the fact that, darn it, here we are. Still here, still distinct, still contributing in outsized ways to American society, still extending the olive branch to white folks, still angered by insults often unconsciously made by white folks. And all of the rest.

I guess I buy the whole argument that black folks have really appropriated the term. And I don’t see why it’s a problem that the term is forbidden to white folks, and not black folks. That’s the whole point. I mean, had blacks enslaved other blacks, invented apartheid laws to use against other blacks, stacked the deck against other blacks in housing, education, and jobs, then maybe it’d be a different story.

A final thought: whenever I hear black folks or black friends use the term — a fair amount — I don’t see other black people lower their heads or anything. I don’t see sadness or bitterness there. I don’t see folks looking sad and forlorn.

So I’m asking, is the use of the n-word really harmful, to speaker or listeners, if no one seems injured by its use? I’m referring specifically to that context, when black folks use it.

Anyway I know one thing. *I* won’t be using the term.

-$.02, thanks for reading

Lou Dobbs
Reply

Does this mean my favorite recording artist, Eminem–the Prince of Eight Mile Road, should cease and desist on this word? I fear his music might take a turn for the worse if this is the case.

davisbacon
Reply

Eminem is pretty good…

I want to amend what I wrote earlier, add one more thing to it: I could be totally full of baloney. I just don’t know, and I admit it.

B
Reply

using it just keeps it in existence just like anything else. the saying “out of sight, out of mind” can be applied here for that word. remember George Allen using a certain term on a campaign trail? most people didn’t know what it was till the media explained what it really meant.

the sooner everyone stops saying it, the sooner that term goes away faster.

guess what’s another way to describe a group of people acting like idiots? a**holes. $h*theads. or simply, people lacking class.

Alex Ponebshek
Reply

My 2 cents:
I don’t believe in political correctness.
I generally don’t say “nigger” because of its offensive meaning, since I’m a nice person.
I *do* use the word if I’m referring to the word, like when quoting someone or discussing it (as with any other word, even voldemort). I have the expectation that people can focus on actually communicating rather than sentimentalities. This expectation is wrong, but I don’t care.

In conversation, I adopt words from the people I’m conversing with. If I am talking to friends (of whatever color) who repeatedly call me “nigga” casually, I am liable to use it the same way. If they expect otherwise because I happen to be white, then *they* are racist. If it means they stop speaking to me: good riddance, hypocrites. (In my experience this isn’t a common issue, people who don’t want to hear the word will cool their jets and stop saying it)

Again, I avoid the word out of respect and politeness, and because I’m not racist, I generally have no cause to use it. But I 100% agree that the “we can use it because we’re black” argument is complete and utter horseshit.

If a reporter uses the word when QUOTING somebody, that is as legitimate a use as any, and nobody should complain. Though if that reporter censors “fuck” in the same sentence, it certainly sends the wrong message. My preference would be for reporters to grow up and not self-censor ANYTHING when quoting people.

Alex Ponebshek
Reply

I’m not sure how my above post is going to be received but looking over it I can see how it could seem pretty rude.

I mean no disrespect, and I assure you I respect you quite a bit or I wouldn’t be here on your blog.

I felt like I had to write a very frank comment because it is entirely *about* being frank.

Bryan
Reply

@davisbacon: The “n” word was created to demean black people – plain and simple. It was directed at us out of pure anger, fear, and low self-esteem. To revel in negativity just creates more negativity and eventually we are exactly what the stereotypes said we were. How can I honestly call my brother a word that has been a sign of hate, and expect him not to take it the wrong way? I can say it’s meant for endearment, but my father and grandfather would slap me silly because it wasn’t used as an endearing term during their early years. The people that you see using the word, or allow other black folks to use the word in their presence, are no better than the person using it in my mind.

@alexponebshek: no worries, I didn’t take it the wrong way (can’t speak for everyone else though). Your opinion is what it is, as long as you are respectful, then a healthy debate can continue. The paragraph starting with “In conversation…” embodies this whole topic. I can say anything I want around you, but if I expect you to not use the same language that I do, I’m a fool. A hypocrit. “Do as I say, not as I do.” Even if your friends don’t get mad at you, I would still expect you to not use it out of simple respect for the word. But again, doesn’t that make me a hypocrit? There is no way around that except to stop using the word alltogether.

The worst part is the cycle of ignorance. The “do as I say, not as I do” people are going to raise a child one day that has the same ignorant ideals.

Alex Ponebshek
Reply

Thanks for the rational reply, and allowing me to participate in a discussion I wouldn’t normally be welcome in.

I just want to niggle one little point about “respect for the word.”
I have no respect for words, and context is everything. Once someone else is using the word in a certain way, they have set the context.

Polite society has two options: “reclaim” the word, or avoid it. Frankly I don’t have a dog in this fight. If my compadres pick the former, I honestly believe that’s a legitimate choice. But I entirely understand why it makes many uncomfortable, hence why I default to the latter to avoid making waves.

Impolite society, of course, has the third option of being bigoted fucks. When people choose that route, I will be all over their asses, whether it be about ethnicity, nationality, sex, gender, wealth, whatever.

Bryan
Reply

You wouldn’t be normally welcome? How come? How about with your compadres?

You may have no respect for words, but I do because certain words have been used for hundreds of years to put black people down. Depending on your nationality, you might have “trigger” words too. Because of that reason alone, those words deserve respect just as any other derogatory word does. It’s the impact that the word has, in any context.

I understand what you mean about having no respect for words because ultimately, it’s people that give words power.

Alex Ponebshek
Reply

Well, I’m not friends with that sort of people, but it’s a sentiment I see. Just like the occasional person who will say men have no place weighing in on the whole abortion debate. (I don’t think women have any more right to tell other women what to do with their own bodies, than men do, ie, none)

On the other thing… the closest thing I have to respect for a word is respect for my audience’s perception of it, but that seems to serve me well enough.

richard
Reply

Most of my closest friends use the words my nigga/ look at this nigga with a great amount of love and respect !! The word nigga is uniquely ours and please leave it alone! All black folks are not on the same page anymore, as result, if the word offends you come hang with us for a few days, soul food lots of country ass black folk all over the age of fifty and some alcohol. If ya don’t hear the word used endearingly a few times, body snachers has occurred.

eddie pierce
Reply

This was very insightful. As a black gay man I have had similar thoughts about all the derogatory words used to label and offend gays. I and several same gender loving individuals use those words casually and often to demean others. I have often heard my own voice and was some what troubled. I have been saying for a long time that the use of the N word amongst blacks is a too each their own kind of thing but when I think about my own efforts to accept myself as a gay man and model that for the word, coupled with my deep abiding faith in God and the power of the words we speak I see the use of these words (or refining from their use) is a responsibility. Something vital first to my immediate community and then to the world. Thank you for this confirmation.

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