Dropping the N-Word

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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.

Comments

Although the intent of this

Submitted by Malcolm on 8 June 2010 - 4:11pm.

Although the intent of this article is laudable, it is poorly reasoned. First, the data quoted is problematic on a number of issues; one, it is ignores the vividness effect; and two, the figures of 25%:90%, 75%:30%, 33%:50% are meaningless in this context and appear, superficially, to be contradictory. Second, the author's acknowledgment of New York's efforts as trying to put out a fire with gasoline fails to recognize the problems inherent in using the phrase "n-word" to avoid the same effect. Third, the history of this word--which now seems elevated (debased?) to a status above the "f-word"--is not as negative as the author suggests. Its origins stem directly from the Latin nigrum (niger) for black. The term can also be found in poetry, literature, and historical documents where it is not used as a pejorative. Any student with a little motivation could Google the term and quickly discover the author's myopic and, therefore, mistaken opinion.

Consequently, if there is a justification for educating out the use of this term, it will have to be argued anew.

During the period of slavery

Submitted by Kelleen on 8 June 2010 - 4:40pm.

During the period of slavery and for decades after, white people used the word as a tool of oppression to label black people as less than human, as animals. Not only so but the word nigger usually generated stereotypes, The word suggests that black people are all thieves, lazy, worthless, and all second class citizens. In fact, Fredrick Douglas encountered the word when first learning to read; he was told, “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world." Malcolm X was told as a youngster that he needed to be “realistic about being a nigger” in terms of his career goals. So it is not a mystery that the word nigger has serious implications in black history as a method of categorizing, stereotyping, insulting, and oppressing black people.

Regrettably, the reply by

Submitted by Malcolm on 8 June 2010 - 7:54pm.

Regrettably, the reply by Kelleen to my comment is unresponsive. Perhaps this is a consequence of missing the point. Specifically, Kelleen's comments reinforce the idea that the article's author was indeed mistaken about the necessity of eliminating the word nigger from popular use. How? Let me explain:

Kelleen's examples demonstrate that the original usage was altered so that the term went from conveying a predominantly neutral tone to implying a derogative. Consequently, the author's original point is undermined in a completely new way not suggested in my original comment. That is, we see that language is a dynamic rather than static phenomena, and a term which may at one time be simply descriptive can transmorgrify into one that is pejorative and may, perhaps, metamorphose into a beneficial one.

Actually, the term nigger

Submitted by MiamiLibrarian on 27 April 2013 - 2:45am.

Actually, the term nigger came from the word niger or black, which originally was a label to lower caste of people, not just blacks. It referred to them as them being so unclean that they were shunned from dinner tables, from polite company and eventually led to slavery. Eventually, when the South & Central Africans were brought over in ships, their appearance cause many to label them as nigrum or niger, then eventually as a a race--negroid. They were put in the same quarters as the other slaves, but it became simpler to just isolate the African people and keep the label just for them. Some of the other races that were originally labeled niger were the Irish, a few Baltic and Asian people, but mostly criminals. Now, only a few aged etymologists seem to remember the historic beginnings.

First, there is nothing wrong

Submitted by Sean Price on 8 June 2010 - 5:17pm.

First, there is nothing wrong with the numbers cited by the Clarion-Ledger. Second, the term "n-word" was obviously needed to discuss an offensive word without endlessly repeating that word. Its use bears no deeper meaning than that. Third, the Latin roots of the n-word are indeed interesting. However, it seems unlikely that most people who use the n-word have its Latin roots in mind. They either intend it as an insult or get a thrill out of knowing that others find it insulting. Neither attitude is healthy or mature. It's true that the n-word has not always been an insult. However, it has been one of the most toxic words in the English language for a long time.

Instead of trying to excise

Submitted by Frankie on 8 June 2010 - 5:43pm.

Instead of trying to excise the word from discourse, we should accept it and thereby neuter it. Other words in the past were similarly considered bad words at one time - words such as "Methodist" and "Chicano." But people today don't think of these as bad words. Using a word repeatedly takes it special status away.

Do the people who object to bad words think we should not even use them in quotes? For example, James K. Vardaman in 1890, in explaining why Mississippi had enacted the first Jim Crow state constitution, said it was "because of the nigger." Should we not quote Vardaman? Who gets to decide who gets to quote whom?

With all the terrible things that white people are doing to black people in the United States today - and have done for hundreds of years - why do we need to devote a significant amount of effort to convinve people to talk nice?

"Why do we need to devote a

Submitted by Angela on 9 June 2010 - 9:52am.

"Why do we need to devote a significant amount of effort to convince people to talk nice?" This question led me to respond to your comment.

How we speak to one another is the core of building healthy relationships. Adults tell children, "don't be rude, disrespectful, insubordinate" because knowing how to treat people with "human dignity" is a social skill needed to make friends, find compatible mates, and became productive citizens of society. So, "talking nice" or as I would say, "speaking words that uplift and value a person" is exactly what we need to educate (convince) people to do. So, your question is important to me and one that needs further critique.

I believe Taboo is the wrong

Submitted by rasheed on 9 June 2010 - 7:49am.

I believe Taboo is the wrong choice of words to describe the N-word! To use this word is misdleading readers to the true fact of what a devastating insult it is!

The origin of the N word cam

Submitted by Tessie Belue on 9 June 2010 - 9:17am.

The origin of the N word cam from Europeans. In 1620, a Dutch ship arrived in Virginia. The ship's manifest listed 20 "negars," aboard. The spelling may have been different from "Nigger." However, the pronounciation would been similiar. I doubt if Africans that Europeans/Americans brought on slave ships called themselves, Niggers." They would have defined themselves, according to their tribal groups. Yet, I note that in slave narratives,the slaves call themselves and others as "niggers." Where did they learn it?

Those of us that belong to the generations before the seventies, eighties, nineties and even today, may view it as an insult especially when whites called us the "N" word. If another black/African-American called us the "N" word one could view it as an insult or a joke, depending in the way they used it. However, it between,"us folks."

The African-Americans comics like today's Chris Rock freely uses it and even comic Richard Pryor used the word back in the day. Their use of it was shocking to many of us but we laugh or disapprove.

The rap culture's use of the "N" is in keeping with their resistance to disenfranchment and authority. The same is with their liberal use of the "F" word.
Education about its historical use should be required in school multicultural studies. At least students will know why it was and still is an insult for older generations.

I am African American and

Submitted by Angela on 9 June 2010 - 10:49am.

I am African American and appalled each time I hear the "n word" used no matter who uses it. No, I don't say it or respond differently depending on who uses it (blacks, whites, comedians, rappers). I always feel a singe of pain in my soul everytime I hear it because I know the historical context and it is ugly filled with hatred for another human being. We need systematic education beginning preK-12 on the honest painful history of African Americans in America. Without this, we are missing a true education.

Furthermore, the history of the "n word" for African Americans was to dehumanize us and use words that negatively label our identity ("n word", colored, jigaboo, etc). We have not received honest, heartfelt regret from our United States of America, but mainly bitterness when we cry out with hurt, anger, or seeking some kind of solace for our historical traumas. Australia stopped everything and made their world stop to apologize for their dehumanization of the Aborigine people.
This shows compassion and a desire to make things right spiritually. We are missing this in America.

I too am appalled at the use

Submitted by Lydia on 9 June 2010 - 1:41pm.

I too am appalled at the use of the word today by anyone - and in any context. Frankly, I believe the origin of the n word is irrelevant. What is relevant is the accepted common connotation used in American society. So regardless of how some comics or young African Americans use the term - the fact is that there is still a large (and I would argue majority) percentage of Americans who see it as derogatory.(Remember comic Michael Richards?!) I often think racists smile and smirk everytime they hear an Afric Amer "jokingly" call each other the n-word. I also think it's important to note that even when seen as "our word" now by Afric Amers - it's still often used as a "playful" put-down.

The discussions about the

Submitted by Linda on 9 June 2010 - 2:59pm.

The discussions about the origin, meanings, etc. have nothing to do with the reality of the usage,conntation, and consequences of using the n-word. It is negative, insulting, and derogatory. It is correct to say that the African American students use it affectionally, yet still as a "playful" putdown. A Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic or Indian student uses the word and it's considered extremely racist and that student is suspended from school. What a dilemna? The intellectualism about the word is just that intellectualism. The point has been missed. How does the usage of this word fit into the social graces of our society on a day to day basis? As stated above, as long as there is a large portion of a population who interprets the word as derogatory, there has to be a standard that everyone is held to socially. This small but powerfully negative word has caused hard feelings and fights among even elementary students. Violence is attached to it. When a term brings out the worst in people, how can it be considered appropriate in any sense of the word?

I agree with you Angela. As

Submitted by Lauren on 23 June 2010 - 8:23pm.

I agree with you Angela. As an African American woman I feel that either from Black or White that word should not be used. This was a negative term, which was used toward our ancestors that were slaves. Our ancestors worked hard to gain freedom and to get away from the oppression that they recieved during that time. Why is it that now its used as a term of endearment? There is no way that something that is used to completely disrespect a person can be a term of endearment. I have both white and black friends and had to correct both with this issue. Ive heard it used in a "posative" way and in a negative way and both times I had to explain to them how much that word is just setting us back.

I am not African American,

Submitted by Linda Davis on 10 March 2011 - 12:13am.

I am not African American, but a woman who grew up when African American people were referred to Negroes. It was the descriptor I learned as a child. I know it is the word for black in Spanish and some other languages. I don't know where the 'n-word' came from, but I always perceived it negatively. My problem is that when I think I know the proper word to use, I am questioned. I was called upon once as being in error when referring to a group of educated black women as women of color. I learned that I was correct. I think the overreaction was due to another phrase I remember from the past--colored people! I have never used the N-word! I respect everyone for who they are. I am often curious about where people are from if they have an accent. I think what's important is that we are all people! We don't need negative words to speak of each other or specific positive names either for that matter! Red, orange, yellow, peach, beige, black or pasty white--we're all one people on this planet Earth. Those of us who accept each other with respect and dignity need to continue in that endeavor. We must be willing to step up and speak up when witnessing narrow-minded individuals lapse into name calling.

I was shocked when I recently heard the expression "towel heads". That was a new one to me! Hopefully, those of Hispanic background are no longer referred to as "spicks" and "wetbacks". My parents grew up being called dago and wop. Jewish people have been referred to as kikes and Goyum. Weren't Polish people often called Polacks? Oh, yes, "Micks" was the reference for Irish immigrants to these United States. The difference between all of these other groups and the African American population is that they eventually were assimilated into the broader society. Because of the darkness of their skin and the fact that they were once chattel--owned by the powerful, wealthy class, African American's weren't allowed to assimilate into American society.

Some people need to put other people down as a way to elevate themselves. As long as they're not on the bottom, they FEEL powerful and "BETTER" than those they believe to be less-than themselves. BUT, who is the lesser man? The lesser man is the one who thinks and/or believes he is better than some others. Unfortunately, it may take another century to bring about REAL EQUALITY in our country.

Let's move forward as caring, respectful people. Hopefully, others will follow our lead and break down the walls built with name calling and ownership of other human beings.

All I know is that, as a

Submitted by Mark Casey on 9 June 2010 - 4:38pm.

All I know is that, as a Chemistry teacher at an urban high school with 99% African-American students (I'm white.), I find the use of the word on the increase. I strictly forbid its use in my presence, because I'm highly offended by the word. I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in the 60's, and vividly remember the civil rights struggle, the riots, and the hurt of my friends when taunted with that word when I was in high school. I don't care how today's blacks have adopted the word to mean homie, buddy or friend, I have heard too many instances when one black uses it as a slur against another black to believe the word has anything but hate behind it. Consider, a black may use the word to describe another black, for better or worse; a white may never use it to describe a black for better, only worse, from the black perspective. The word is divisive, does nothing to promote interracial relations, and therefore, should never be uttered by anyone, for any reason. It's a word whose time has passed. It should never be tolerated in school.

Compare it to the f-word. Although the word is also offensive, all races in the English language use it and its derivatives in anger, jest and friendship. It crosses racial boundaries, and has the potential to be less hateful than the n-word. In the classroom, I try to discourage the use of the f-word and its derivatives, but must confess it makes me less angry than the n-word.

I'm also white, and I

Submitted by James on 9 June 2010 - 5:19pm.

I'm also white, and I generally don't use the word unless in extreme stress/dangerous situations. But I also don't swear unless I'm in an unusually stressful or dangerous situation. What isn't right, though, is that black people try to forbid any other race from using the word, but they use it themselves...a lot. If it was so offensive, why should I stop using it when they don't? It's obviously not offensive enough for them to stop using it. It sure seems like a double standard for them to try to make me stop using it when they don't stop using it. I agree, it's offensive; but if it's in common usage by the group of people it's supposedly most offensive to, it's obviously not that offensive and I don't think that it should be as big of a deal as people make it out to be. Unless, of course, black people themselves stop using it and actually show me that it really is offensive to them.

I am an (older-60+)

Submitted by Eva on 11 June 2010 - 9:55am.

I am an (older-60+) African-American and my overall impression is this; sadly many younger members of our community think that by saying/believing that the power of the word is lessened if they take command or control of the word by using it in their everyday conversation. "It can't hurt me, because I control how it's being use." This is ignorant and it is dangerous. It lulls these people into a false sense of security that everything is ok; we're all equal and the playing field is level. Any intelligent person that reads or listens to the media and/or is remotely aware of the events that happen daily in our world knows differently. The n-word is used as an descriptor of people of middle eastern or Indian origin who have dark skin tones. They are called sand n's. As to Monique's comment about using the word; I wonder if she would tell her children it's ok to call each other that? Come on, really??? Unfortunately I believe Intergration in some way contributed to the myth of it's ok to say the word. My early school education consisted of lessons on our history from Africa to the present. I was taught to respect and honor the people who endured the unbearable brutality of slavery and later discrimination, yet went on to help build and make America the great nation that it is. Sadly assimilation sometime doesn't have the time speak to that, and if a nation of our children are not learning their history in their homes, it becomes less important and the legacy will not continue. Lastly, there are racist names for many ethnic groups, even white people, but I've yet to hear one person from any other ethnic group call themselves any of those ugly words, why are we doing it? Consider the history of the Jewish people; they are faithful in never letting their children forget the horror of the Holacaust. If you don't know your history, you don't know yourself!

A fascinating subtext to this

Submitted by Keith Moore on 15 June 2010 - 2:09am.

A fascinating subtext to this hand-wringing about the revival of the term "nigger" is that it's not the only one that has been revived and mainstreamed by the group it's meaning to denigrate. The non-heterosexual community has turned the denigrating term "queer" into their own and use it to refer to themselves. Should we be wringing our hands with distress because the mistreated have wrestled a term away from those that mistreat them? Likewise with the term "fag"; a leading association of LBGT reporters advises that the term was once used as a pejorative but is being reclaimed by some gay men. Should we be wringing our hands and wailing? Of course not. In some bizarre way, despite the obsession among numerous organizations with the belief that racism is alive and well, the social power arrayed against outright racism is so strong that it has become possible for the term "nigger" to be reclaimed by blacks just as the LBGT community reclaimed "queer" and "fag." This evolution should be celebrated as a perverse but legitimate demonstration of progress; instead, there is great distress as if the weakening of racism is a bad thing. I imagine it is... if you profit from racial minorities believing that the white majority is still out to get them.

I don't know what to say...I

Submitted by Monalisa Diallo on 15 June 2010 - 12:49pm.

I don't know what to say...I hate when my children use it. But, I use it when I am trying to make a certain point.
Just like the F-word!

@ James Your white privilege

Submitted by teachermrw on 25 June 2010 - 2:52am.

@ James Your white privilege astounds me. As a black person, I have NEVER used racially derogatory language under stress. Additionally, to state that until black people refrain from using the word nigger you will look upon the situation in a different way is ignorant beyond words. A word of advice, James: Check your white privilege.