Can Blacks Rid Themselves of the Use of the N-Word?

August 27, 2010 at 10:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Guest Editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe

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

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 Schlessinger 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.

Reverend Irene Monroe is a nationally-known writer, speaker and theologian.  She has been profiled in O, Oprah Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.  (The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.)

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  1. I am so happy that the ugly (inside and out) crazy old gym teacher reaped what she had sowed. She could have gotten her argument across by saying “N word” and not using the word and by not saying “don’t NAACP me” and “Don’t marry out of your race ” but like Michael Richards AKA “Cosmo Kramer”, she ends up the trash heap of history, a history of her own making. I am so happy that the free market AKA sponsors started to pull their ads (I guess they were exercising their free speech) and she finally realized that she was just another “run of the mill gabby” and her days were numbered. She realized that she was not as smart as she thought she was, finally! We are all adults here and we all know that we cannot control how others will respond to our comments, but it nothing to do about First Amendment rights (how exactly did the government stop her? They didn’t) and street talk and more about being held responsible for our actions and words. The first three times she used the word might not have been in anger but the last eight she was filled with hate, so good riddance.

    Palin was the one who got bent over the use of the word “Retard” (she wanted someone fired for using it once), Palin also said that the people have the right to build the Mosque in NY, but out of respect for the 9/11 families they shouldn’t, but I guess this same standard is not applicable to Laura Schlessinger. Do you see the hypocrisy? The problem with Palin is the same when she mistakenly referred to Ronald Reagan Eureka College, being in California and we all know its in Illinois, same thing, she does not fact check anything she is going to say. She is soooo Palin!

    http://vodpod.com/watch/3933949-keith-olbermann-mocks-sarah-palins-imbecility-stupidity-video

    http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-august-24-2010/the-hurt-talker


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