Who can use the “N” word?


By Dianne Hermann (Copyright 2013)

Paula Deen is yet another victim of using what is euphemistically called the “N” word. You don’t have to look very far to find people who have been subjected to the “N” word witch hunt. Remember Los Angeles police detective Mark Furhman’s testimony during the OJ Simpson trial back in 1995? Furhman lost his job (technically he resigned) after admitting he used the “N” word.

But there’s a double standard. Why are some people allowed to use the word, while others are not? There has been a long string of movies and songs using, even glorifying, the “N” word. A black Rap group named themselves NWA, the WA standing for “With Attitude”. You already know what the N stands for.

During the 2008 Grammy Awards Rapper Nas and his wife Kelis wore t-shirts bearing the controversial epithet to promote an upcoming album. Rap and hip-hop lyrics are replete with references to the “N” word. It’s the basis for the material of many black comedians. Apparently, if you’re black you can use the word with impunity and make lots of money doing it. In 1988, NWA’s album Straight Outta Compton went double-platinum (over 3 million in sales) with songs like “F— the Police.”

It’s been almost 10 years since the award-winning documentary “The N Word” was released. This 86-minute film chronicled the etymology, history, usage, hyperbole, and cultural transformation of the word nigger

The word is believed to have come from a 17th Century Latin word for the color black. The spelling and pronunciation have evolved over the centuries, but it is most closely associated with the slave trade and subsequent derogatory references to blacks in general and the Civil Rights Movement in particular.

Many blacks, including those interviewed for the documentary say it’s okay to use the word in context when talking to or referring to other blacks. It can even to be used “with love and affection” according to football legend Michael Irvin. But music pioneer Qunicy Jones went so far as to say it couldn’t be used outside of black music or the black community.

There are other socially unacceptable words referred to by their first letter. All you have to go through the alphabet to discover it is filled with land mines. I think most of us know that the “A” word discriminates against stupid and obnoxious people, and the “B” word denigrates women.  But then we’re left to our own imagination when most people bypass the letters “C” through “M” to get to “N.” Maybe someday we’ll run out of letters of the alphabet to use as invectives.

It’s not just the “N” word that causes problems, but words that sound like it. Washington D.C. staffer David Howard was fired in 1999 by then mayor Anthony Williams for using (in the appropriate context) the word “niggardly” to describe the financial woes of our capital city. Niggardly means stingy or miserly. It predates the Latin word for “black” by some 300 years. No matter, it sounded close enough and he was fired.

Using the word nigger is insensitive and inflammatory, but it’s not illegal. So has the term the “N” word been co-opted to suppress free speech and change popular thinking, or are people just being polite and respectful? Or, perhaps people are so afraid of being called racist that they censor their words and thoughts. Can you cause a paradigm shift in cultural views by creating such a hostile environment that people bend to your ideas at the expense of their own? Can you change the meaning of a word from one generation to another? It was done with the word gay. Remember when gay used to mean happy?

So does the word nigger now mean something different to the 18-35 demographic than it did during the Civil Rights Movement? Is this part of our modern vernacular? Is it a generational thing? Do those who suffered during the hate and violence of the Civil Rights Movement still feel the sting of that racial slur while the younger generation sees it as a call to brotherhood? That depends on whom you ask.

So, should anyone use the “N” word? If it’s so onerous that using it gets white people fired, should black people use it? Why does the “N” word witch hunt only apply to white people like Paula Deen and not actor Samuel L. Jackson, who proudly calls himself the “N” word? (Can I reference witch hunts without offending Wiccan readers? You can’t be too careful what you say anymore!)

Can you be vilified for something you said (or thought) decades ago? Can one word ruin your life?  Poor Paula Deen.