The n-word holds a unique position in the English language. On one hand, it's so taboo that it is not even whispered in polite company. On the other hand, teenagers use the word so frequently in so many ways that it has taken on new life beyond its origins as an insult.
The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, wondered just how popular the word has become among high school students. This survey gave the answer:
Usage of the n-word—one of America's most controversial racial slurs—is on the rise among black and white students, a survey shows.
At the request of The Clarion-Ledger, a group of 211 students at a metro-area high school took part in an anonymous survey about their use of the n-word.
By a nearly 2-1 margin, those students said the use of the n-word is on the rise.
The n-word is so prevalent among black students—nearly a fourth of those surveyed—that most agreed 90 percent or more of them used the word. Most white students—three-fourths of those surveyed—said 30 percent or more of them use the word; nearly a third of them put the percentage at 50 percent or higher.
Of course, teenagers are not the only ones using the n-word. African-American rappers, comedians, actors, and writers also love peppering their speech with it. And what do all these people have in common with teenagers? They all badly want to fit in with each other, and they enjoy annoying authority figures. What better way to achieve those goals than by casually tossing around the nuclear bomb of racial slurs?
But the n-word’s bizarre second life goes beyond its shock value. Some prominent blacks, like the Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique of Precious fame, claim that the n-word is a kind of intra-racial “term of endearment.” In that context, the hateful old “n---ers” has turned into a more friendly “n---as.” “It’s our word,” she says.
Unfortunately, trying to turn the n-word into a kind of club password completely ignores human nature. Whites hearing blacks use the n-word are going to use it too—either as a “term of endearment” or an ironic joke or to do their own annoying of authority figures. And all the rappers and teenagers calling each other the n-word give them perfect psychological cover. One white student summed it up for the Clarion-Ledger: "Because we are all equal now, it is just another word, not an insult."
Not many black people would agree with that statement. That’s in part because deep down they realize that the n-word is not a “black thing”—it’s a racist thing. And all the friendly n-word greetings in the world won’t change the word’s malevolent history.
In 2007, New York and some other cities tried to stamp out the use of he n-word by banning it. This well-meaning act was like putting out a fire with gasoline. The only hope of reducing the n-word’s use will come steadily through education.
Above all, African-American parents, teachers and entertainers must make it clear that that the n-word is not part of their vocabularies. Meanwhile, all educators must detail the word’s vicious past and erase the ignorance that fuels its use. Students also need to hear the word as others hear it—to walk in others’ shoes and understand that there’s a price you pay for deliberately offending people.
After all that, some people will still insist on using the n-word. They should simply get two warnings. First, don’t be surprised when you hear it thrown back at you. Second, don’t forget that you helped make that possible.