With the National Football League discussing banning the “N” word on the playing field, people across the country have begun to debate anew the use of the slur. While the word has racist roots and still today is as offensive as it’s ever been, it is used by many African-Americans, particularly the younger crowd, on a daily basis as a fond reference toward a friend. Believe it or not, some young whites attempt to use the word in that manner as well.
But it’s almost universally accepted that whites shouldn’t use this horrible word that was once and is still used to denigrate black people. Some say it’s a double standard for African-Americans to be able to use the word, even if it is as a term of endearment, if white people can’t.
I believe that this hurtful, offensive word should be shelved forever, by everyone. Knowing its history, I’ll never accept it as a warm, fuzzy and friendly term.
As I heard people discuss the word and its usage in recent weeks, I went back in The State’s archives to retrieve a Jan. 20, 2002, column I wrote on the subject. I’ve included it below; give it a read. What are your thoughts on this always prickly subject?
‘N’ word never a term of endearment
“Dear Mr. N---:”
That's how a letter I received during the Confederate flag debate of 2000 began. However, the slur was spelled out. What started out as a polite address, “Dear Mr. . . .,” had an ending that hit like a fist slamming into my gut.
I know who I am; I wasn't wounded for life. But, for a moment, it hurt. It hurts every time.
It hurt when I would have to run home from the local Boys Club as young white boys chased me and friends, screaming the epithet. It hurt the few times I had to walk through the Olympia community to school only to be chased and called the “N” word.
Remember the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?” It's a lie. Some words do hurt. They hurt bad. And no word in the English lexicon has done as much damage as the “N” word.
In the coming weeks and months there will be a lot of discussion about the ugly racial slur and not just because S.C. Rep. Jake Knotts recently was accused of saying it during a discussion about state reapportionment.
Another reason is that of Columbia native Randall Kennedy's new book about the word. The slur is in the title of the book. The black Harvard law professor seeks to spur conversation about the word and its place in society, yesterday and today. His book is the beginning of the discussion. Others are planning a separate book and a documentary on the subject.
There are many people who would just as soon see this word disappear from the language. And I don't blame them.
I don't use the word and don't believe others should use it either. My belief is that there are simply some things we should not say.
However, we are remiss if we are mum on the word and its use and do not address the inequities and injustices that helped keep it alive. While many positive strides have been made, there are still economic and social gaps that must be addressed. More than that, there are historical facts that have been swept under the rug, facts people don't want to talk about any more than they want to hear the “N” word uttered.
However, if we can't sit down and look each other in the eye and candidly talk about our shared past, no matter how hurtful, then we will never possess the power to kill this word.
You see, it's not simply about the word itself. The reason some words hurt so much is that they go far beyond simple expression.
In the case of the “N” word, its negative effect was buoyed by a system aimed at making sure the group of people labeled as such would not only be kept back by word, but by law and practice.
The word was practically codified into law by the racist and segregationist laws, attitudes, and social and economic practices that once existed here in America.
Blacks were slaves and considered less than human. They were not allowed to vote. They were degraded and given a name that fit, or fixed, their position in society. That slur will be forever attached to those evil actions.
Is it any wonder that when it is uttered it conjures up the worst kind of anger in many black people, as well as some whites?
However, many whites understandably ask, if the word is so upsetting, why do many African-Americans — particularly young people and hip-hop artists — use it among themselves, often as a term of endearment?
The reasons vary.
One answer is that they do it to take power away from the word. If they own it themselves, they are snatching one of the weapons that has been able to sting the black consciousness at an utterance.
Another is that some simply don't have the historical context to understand the true meaning of the word, and they ignorantly use it, perpetuating a slave mentality.
And then there is the thought that it is outright rebellion.
It doesn't matter in what context people — black or white — attempt to use it in. It doesn't matter their intent or tone. This word does not stray from its roots.
This word's meaning has been fixed in stone. Certainly, we must recognize its historical significance and impact, though grossly negative. But we must never accept it as common. We can't detach the use of the word from the abuse of a people.
So, if you're offended by the “N” word, then you should be offended by racial discrimination and social injustice.
The only way we can truly put the word to rest is to confront it at its roots. That means confronting the history of slavery, Jim Crowism and discrimination in this country, and their effects on blacks and whites. It means attacking the vestiges of racism in our society and institutions. It means making sure our children understand our shared history.
It means making sure whites understand that under no circumstances should they use the slur in reference to any fellow human being. The same goes for blacks, even in instances when it is supposed to be a term of endearment.
Remember the letter I received. It began, “Dear Mr. N-----:”
That was no term of endearment.
Warren Bolton can be reached by phone at (803) 771-8631 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.