The N-Word: Is It Ever Okay?

Julie Marsh
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julie marsh
Julie Marsh
Dr. Laura Schlessinger
's on-air tirade, in which she repeated the n-word multiple times, has been met with a wide variety of reactions. Sarah Palin, in "a breathtakingly tone-deaf bit of provocation," advised Dr. Laura via Twitter: "Don't retreat...reload!"

Most people, however, have been shocked. Her statements to the caller on the other end of this rant were beyond the pale even for Dr. Laura, who's well-known for instigating the public with her oft-misinformed judgments.

As Dr. Laura's caller -- an African-American woman -- asked, is it ever okay to use that word?

I'm white. I can't get the n-word to come out of my mouth; it gets stuck at the top of my throat. I could not even say it in the context of a quote. I've been listening to rap music and watching black comedians since I was in high school, and the n-word still packs a punch when I hear it. I don't like it, and I wish nobody would say it.

Political blogger Keli Goff agrees. She writes:

"By no means am I a fan of Dr. Laura ... but I'm even less of a fan of the n-word, which I find more offensive, more harmful, and more poisonous to our community than Dr. Laura will ever be .... On one side of the debate are those of us who believe that no one should say the n-word -- not a white racist and not a black comedian -- ever. On the other side are those who believe that if you're black, you essentially get an n-word lifetime free pass."

Goff argues that the use of the n-word even among the African-American community is ultimately destructive: "If a child hears his uncle refer to his father as the n-word on a regular basis, but has been told that if a white person says it to him it's bad, do you honestly believe the word remains harmless?"

Most compellingly, Goff notes that "AIDS is the leading cause of death of young, black women and gun violence is one of the leading causes of death of young black men ... I notice that those issues do not seem to generate the same level of outrage and even reaction in cyberspace among black Americans that a white person saying the n-word seems to."

On the other hand, John McWhorter argues that in spite of efforts to curtail it, the n-word will remain in use in the black community at all socioeconomic levels. So he offers this proposal:

"We need to strike a deal. If blacks are going to go about slinging the n-word around at one another -- and they are -- then we will also stop pretending that there is no difference between quoting the word and saying it. That is not only fair but also a matter of exhibiting basic intelligence."

That is, when white people quote the n-word, it isn't the same as directing it at a person or a group. McWhorter posits that Dr. Laura's use of the n-word was in this context, though he acknowledges that "to quote the word over and over is cocky, rude. But we always knew that Laura Schlessinger was rude."

Much as I don't like the n-word no matter who says it, McWhorter's view is realistic. It won't keep Dr. Laura and others like her from being rude and quite possibly racist (reference her other statements made during and after that call), but it accepts that the n-word is part of the community vocabulary.

However, Goff and McWhorter agree on the most important point: "Don't we have more important things to do?" There are bigger threats to the black community; shouldn't we focus our attention on those instead?

Is it ever okay to use the n-word?


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