Race Matters: The N-Word
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me!”
Over the next several weeks we are going to blog on the N-word. Yes, that’s right, the N-word. It keeps baring it’s ugly head. Yet, it is more complicated than it appears on the surface.
This July in the media, Mel Gibson is heard on tape using the N-word to his former girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva (“You look like a f***ing pig in heat, and if you get raped by a pack of n***ers, it will be your fault”). The President of the NAACP Los Angeles gave the following statement to RadarOnline.com (who originally released the tapes):
It is unfortunate that a man of his statue and admiration, who has made his millions off of women, African-Americans and Jews harbors such racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic feeling against people who have admired and respected him for decades. An apology is insufficient given his history of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.
And still fresh in many of our minds is the “racist tirade” made by Michael Richards on November 20, 2006, who played the character of Kramer on the hit comedy Seinfeld. In response to the seemingly playful hecklings from an African American audience member, Richards shouted: “Fifty years ago we’d have you upside down with a f***ing fork up your ass.” Riled up, he continued, “You can talk, you can talk, you’re brave now motherf**ker. Throw his ass out. He’s a n***er! He’s a n***er! He’s a n***er! A n***er, look, there’s a n***er!” The nation was up in arms with this direct targeting at an individual, prompting an outcry to stop using the word across the board.
We can all agree that something is very wrong with these references to the N-word, especially with its link to a painful past for black people. But, people are using it, especially our youth across races and ethnicities, to signal comraderie. And if this impasse seems complicated enough, we have to be mindful about other references as well. We only have to look back to January of this year, when the highly respected Sen. Harry Reid apologized for “racial” remarks he made in a private conversation about then Senator Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign. He described a successful Obama as “light-skinned…with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” While not the N-word per se, Negro was viewed as outdated and necessarily racialized. But here too African Americans have also used this word for self-reference, evidenced in the name of one of the most successful black institutions, the United Negro College Fund (UNCF).
So, what’s going on here? Its complicated and we need to go slowly.
In this post we have brought the issue to the forefront recognizing the complexities in tackling the use of this one lexical item. In the next blog post on this issue, we want to get more of a handle on who is or isn’t using it and what this means for us as a nation.