The N Word, Revisited

Dr. Laura Schlesinger, who is probably the most annoying, judgemental, self-absorbed person who ever sat behind a radio microphone, seems to have opened Pandora’s box yesterday when she had the nerve to utter the word “nigger” several times on national radio. In the midst of a huge media splash, Schlesinger later offered a clearly scripted apology. While what she did was unusual and certainly not well thought-out, she clearly had no offensive intent. People aren’t reacting to her, but to the word itself, regardless of context. I think the apology did more damage than the offense by acknowledging the word’s power.

It is just a word, after all, and she was using it by example to make a point — a valid point that the caller to her show completely missed. She instead flew into a rage and made Dr. Schlesinger’s use of the word the issue. This is the typical pattern — play the race card and everything else becomes unimportant. Schlesinger didn’t use it as an insult, or as a racial slur, or in any way other than to respond to the woman’s question with a reasoned argument instead of a knee-jerk reaction. Nonetheless, fearful of fanning the flames, HLN (Headline News) this morning bleeped out the word when reproducing the audio from the show — bleeped it as if it were profanity!

The double standard offends a lot of people. Black people say it with impunity, where white people are racists if they dare utter it. (I’ll get hatemail about using it in this blog. You can bet on that, even though I am absolutely color-blind and have no prejudices other than a mild disdain for stupid people.) The fact that it’s used among black people is proof positive to me that the word itself has no intrinsic power and is not the problem. Racism and bigotry go beyond a mere word.

I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to quote an earlier blog here. What follows is the relevant part of a much longer blog that contained much irrelevant rambling. It expresses my thoughts on an event that was current at the time, and on the word in general. This is from my blog of July 10, 2007.

It’s not a stunt performed by renegade radio shock jocks Opie & Anthony, although it’s certainly provided them with some wonderful new excuses to lampoon Don Imus.

No, this idiotic stunt was performed by what is arguably the oldest civil rights organization in the country, the NAACP. In a park in Detroit, hundreds gathered to attend the burial service for the dreaded N-word, along with Detroit’s Mayor, Michigan’s Governor, and probably more than a few amused onlookers.

George Carlin had it right, folks. There are no bad words. There are bad thoughts, bad intentions–and words. He once made hilarious fun of a language that has 400,000 words, and only seven that you can’t say on broadcast television. It’s not just comedy; it’s a statement about how tragically hung up we are, as a people, on the power that we ourselves give a series of letters strung together to form a word.

The word itself carries no power. To say otherwise is tantamount to idolatry.

“Let us write this series of glyphs on the cave wall. Let us then be careful to never speak them, never inscribe them on any public cave wall, never include them in our writings, and never otherwise acknowledge them, for they are evil and will bring great woe upon our people.”

Cracka, please.

Face facts. The world is still well populated by bigots, racists, and practitioners of prejudice and hatred in all their forms. They are not in the majority, but they walk among us largely unrecognized except when they burn crosses on lawns, wear white bed sheets as fashion accessories, or make incendiary remarks on nationally syndicated radio.

You can bury a word, for all the symbolic satisfaction it gives you, but you can’t try to bury decades of racial tension by having a fake funeral on a river bank in Detroit and expect it to actually change anything. Take the word out of the language if you want. Strike it from the dictionaries, forbid it to be spoken, and make it illegal if you really want to pretend that the power is in the word. You’re wasting your time. The power is in the feelings that give the word a voice. The power is in the minds of those who judge people (to paraphrase Dr. King) by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character.

Conducting a funeral for a word simply focuses the minds of those who would advocate for change in entirely the wrong direction. Time, effort, and energy that could be spent on the sisyphean task of eliminating prejudice as a viable belief system is instead being spent telling people what they should and should not write or say. We’re trying to eliminate the bad words and letting the bad feelings persist.

The FCC believes it has buried those seven dirty words and will never again allow them to be heard on the terrestrial broadcast airwaves. Ever heard a word that was uttered as an expletive, carefully bleeped except for its closing consonant “t,” and wondered what that word could possibly have been? Neither has your child. The simple fact is that whether I call it by that name, or feces, or excrement, I’m still talking about something that stinks. It’s not going to smell any better if I choose to bury one or even all three of those words. It’s more practical and a better use of my resources to bury the offending substance and get on with my life.

Likewise, the N-word’s hate-filled meaning can be conveyed using half a dozen similarly distasteful words, most of which Opie and Anthony not inaptly referred to this morning as the deceased’s oldest friends. We could bury them all and bigots would simply find another word to divert to their purpose. The word has no life. It has no meaning beyond what we give it. It is but a symptom of a larger problem. We must treat that problem, that underlying cause, to have any hope of permanently resolving that symptom.


  1. I second every sentiment spoken there. For a long time it has frustrated me that black people happily use the word, yet I am not allowed to use it. When Glee covered “Gold Digger” the word nigger is removed, yet this song was written and sung originaly by a black artist! Its ridiculous. Its hypocrytical.
    I’m a huge advocate of it not being what you say but HOW its said. Words have no meaning untill you force your own emotions into them. And its still a sad world in this sense…

  2. Very thought-provoking and, sadly, very true as far as the general context is concerned. It seems that political correctness exists to serve political expedience, which in turn is intended to discriminately serve those on whom the fickle socio-political winds blow are warmly for the moment.

    Problem is, such stark and obvious duplicity stifles any possibility of achieving true and effective resolution to the underlying issues, and instead empowers those who otherwise rightly could claim grievous injury from the use of such language to self-inflict equally grievous destruction that kills by inches the soul of the communities in which they live.

    My mother was Japanese, migrating here from pre-war Osaka, Japan. My father was mixed race English, Scottish, German, and Native American Indian.

    My grandmother on my father’s side was horribly racist. But then, so were so many in her generation, having lost brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers to very determined and unquestionably cruelly inhumane enemies.

    My grandmother on my mother’s side was horribly racist, but then, when generations have been brought up to believe absolutely in their own superiority, it becomes impossible for those generations to recognize their own racist proclivities.

    In my lifetime, I have been railed and assailed as a “Jap”, “Slant Eyes”, “Nip”, and (quite misdirectly) “Chink”, among so many other slurs and epithets, yet I thoroughly understand the completely demeaning, disparaging nature of these words and therefore do no depend on a socio-political movement to point out the denigration of their continued use, regardless of any social justification that may be offered.

    I do not use such insults as terms of “personal endearment” as I once heard someone claim when laughingly hurling the “N” word at another friend. The common use of these racial slurs do not proliferate my art, my music, nor my literature except within the confines of historical contexts.

    In short, there are few cultures that find these dichotomous attitudes toward racial disparagements acceptable, and those cultures that do eventually carry the scars from such transgressions.

    As a sidebar, I do not agree with your assessment of Laura Schlessinger, but that could be an offline discussion, better conducted over Scotch and seafood…with an appropriately determined dessert, of course.

  3. Not all black people use the word. From what I understand, many remember the way it was used in the past and firmly reject it now. I don’t think it’s up to me as a white woman to decide if and when it’s ok to use such an emotive word.
    It’s easy to say “They’re only words” but words have affected me, made me hide myself away, made me reconsider my position often enough for me to believe that words do have power, and we have a responsibility to be careful with how we use them.
    I don’t believe in banning words. I firmly believe in people’s right to say “actually, what you said is offensive to me and I’d rather you chose different language to express yourself” if someone uses language of a racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic nature.

  4. Consider if you will the word “bitch” it has a proper use amongst canine breeders to refer to the female of the species. It has a derogatory use to indicate someone who is extremely disagreeable, mean, nasty etc. It is also used in reference to one who has been subjugated as in “you are my bitch”. Then there are the times when it is used laughingly and yes, odd as it may seem, as an endearment.

    The only difference between “bitch” and “nigger” is that the N word has a racial history. It was originally a simple descriptive term derived from the word “negro” or “black”. It became a derogatory term in its use to indicate black slaves or people considered of similar station. It took on the connotation of one who was lowly, stupid, lazy etc. When used by a person who is not black or of obvious black African heritage it is still considered only in the pejorative sense. When used by a person of obvious black African descent it can be interpreted as pejorative, a brotherly reference or a playfully insulting taunt depending on the context.

    Having stated the obvious in detail at this point I wonder what it would take to make “bitch” a word of such hypersensitive status as “nigger”. Obviously “bitch” is more politically correct since it applies to all races equally. I have never really used the N word but I think that from now on “bitch” should be the new “nigger” and strive for the same status.

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