The Infamous N-word

No matter the spelling or context, the n-word remains intertwined with American racial tensions past and present.

This time, we are not talking about Dr. Laura Schlessinger, Dog the Bounty Hunter, John Mayer, Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, Paula Deen or Riley Cooper. The headlines this past week reported major lawsuits addressing black-on-black racial harassment through use of the infamous n-word (“NY Case puts N-word Use among Blacks on Trial” and “$1 Million + Verdict against Alabama State University for use of ‘N’ Word”), and Americans are—once again—trying to figure out why this word continues to wreak havoc on our popular psyche. In New York, the AP reported, “a federal jury has rejected a black manager's argument that it was a term of love and endearment when he aimed it at black employee.” A commentator for the Alabama Employment Law Report blog made this pronouncement: “It is important for employers in Alabama to understand the nature of the use of the ‘N’ word, that is not acceptable in any work environment, and that failure to act responsibly when it is reported can lead to extensive damages and adverse publicity.”

Most Americans know the n-word’s history of violence, intimidation and disparagement of black bodies. Even today the word has not shed its inherent connection to racial bias and hatred. Entire websites are devoted to mocking and brutally attacking black people across the globe, and daily Google Alerts verify that the word is prevalent in public and private circles. The n-word even travels across oceans through hip-hop music; a hip-hop store in Malawi carries this word as its name.

I recently participated in a radio panel on this “unforgiven” word. Another panelist lumped me in with older folks who can’t understand how the n-word has allegedly been appropriated to remove its sting, to be a “term of endearment.” My young accuser was right. It is impossible for me to imagine that this word—deemed by various news outlets as “the most toxic in the English language”; the word that “occupies a place in the soul where logic and reason never go”; and “the all-American trump card, the nuclear bomb of racial epithets”—can be considered a term of endearment. If the n-word is the equivalent of “homie,” “man” or “dude,” why is it used instead?

The two court cases this week tell us that there really is no double standard in which Paula Deen can't say the word but any black person can. I know well the power of words to shift and shake meanings; African Americans have led the way in making “bad” be “good,” or “phat” be “dope,” or “sick” be “ridiculous.” No matter the spelling variations in print or pronunciation (“er,” “a” or “ah”), the root of the word remains violence-laden and inextricably intertwined with American racial tensions, past and present.

Since I have been teaching a university course and publishing on the n-word, lecturing across the country, and giving radio and television interviews, I find that folks want to know more about how to combat the rampant use of this word in popular culture, nationally and internationally. But I don’t think folks are confused about its power to harm. Without a doubt, the n-word continues to sting those attacked by it. White people know it, black people know it, everyone knows it. What is it about this word that continues to hold such power that it cannot be buried, petitioned away or erased from the dictionary? The answer is individual choice. Knowing history and paying attention to what is happening around us all gives us the basis for choice. Once we know and live history, we cannot unknow or unlive it.

Putting this word under a critical microscope underscores ideas about language and identity, public performance and American race relations. The n-word matters to young people and elders, black and white folks, males and females. It matters in international and domestic spheres, public and private sectors, the past and the present. It touches the personal, the political, and the professional. A luta continua.

Neal A. Lester is professor of English and director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University. Learn more about Lester’s teaching on this subject in the magazine feature, "Straight Talk about the N-word."

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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