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 is okay to use the n-word, Dr. Laura should have sought 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 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. Jackson’s use of the word not only reminded us of its ugly history but also showed us how the n-word can slip so easily 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 regularly hurled at African Americans but was banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural tolerance in some sectors of 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, and 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 “re” 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 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.