The N-Word: Have We Given It Too Much Power?

Nigger by Randall Kennedy

I often laugh when I hear adults referring to "the F-word" when no children are present. It strikes me as more than a little silly that adults wouldn't either say the word they want to say or replace it with something more appropriate if they are in a situation where that would be of concern. And yet, referring to "the N-word" seems entirely different. I'll admit that I've even been guilty of using this phrase in order to quote others without actually quoting them. And while I have no desire to say the actual word, I do sometimes wonder whether using "the N-word" as an alternative has been a mistake.

I know the arguments against using the word this phrase replaces, and I generally agree with them. In civilized society, we generally try to avoid using racial epithets. That's a good thing. We do this out of respect for others, but we also do it because we do not want to risk being labeled as racist. The dreaded "N-word" in particular is to be avoided because it is widely regarded as hateful and hurtful in a way few other words are. There are a host of other racial and ethnic slurs most of us learn to avoid, but none seems to have quite as much power as the "N-word." At least, that seems to be what many people seem to believe.

When Dr. Laura Schlessinger broke this odd social covenant by saying "nigger" not once but 11 times during an episode of her radio show many years ago, our news media reported on it by referring to "the N-word" and bleeping the actual word from Schlessinger's audio. I think we can understand why they did this, but it did raise a couple of questions for me.

First, are we really so delicate that we must be protected from words? Yes, yes we are. At least, some of us are. These days, many people do not distinguish between words and violence. For someone who doesn't, hearing the dreaded "N-word" might be equivalent to a punch in the gut. And when one considers the high-profile efforts of some feminists to ban the word "bossy," one is again reminded that there are many among us who do seek protection from words.

The next question probably doesn't have nearly as easy an answer. At least, I'm not sure how to answer it. Might we be better off confronting the ugliness of the actual word and wrestle with why it is still being used than to make it into some sort of "word that cannot be named?" As we have al heard countless times, America stubbornly refuses to have anything approaching a serious discussion about race and the myriad issues surrounding it. Our media pundits often tell us that we still aren't ready to do so, that the hurt is still too raw, and that emotions still run too high. They've been saying that for several decades. Will we ever be permitted to have the difficult discussions about race that might facilitate healing? Are we capable of doing so?

Here's what I'm wondering: Is it at least possible that our refusal to quote Schlessinger accurately allows us to avoid asking why someone might use the word? Might our need to express outrage over what she said and our need to obscure it even as we report on it detract from an examination of her motives? Is it at least possible that we write or say "the N-word" because we too are uncomfortable with having a real discussion about racism?

I wish I knew the answer to these questions. All I can say is that I suspect that any discussion we might someday be able to have about race (or any other difficult subject) is likely to be facilitated by open and honest discourse. Perhaps we have given some words too much power.