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Ending The N-Word

Keli Goff explains, “Why We Should Actually Thank Dr. Laura for Her N-Word Rant.”

So the reason I’d like to thank her is because I’m hoping that her recent on air meltdown will finally help settle a philosophical debate over the n-word that has raged for years. 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.

[…]

But the fact that she felt justified saying what she did confirms a fundamental reality: Arbitrary rules about who can say the n-word and who cannot simply do not work. Dr. Laura felt justified saying what she did because a host of rappers and comedians continue to validate her perspective.

[…]

And for those who argue the word’s artistic value. Newsflash Kanye, Jaime, Sherri, Whoopi and others: if you are funny and talented enough, your act shouldn’t cease being entertaining with the elimination of one word. The n-word is not like air or water. We can live without it, so why not try?

Which brings me to my final point. One thing that strikes as so strange about this entire debate is that our community has so much that is actually worth fighting for. We still lag behind in all of the areas in which it actually matters: graduation rates, life expectancy, compensation, and financial security. Why have some of us decided that keeping the n-word alive and well is a battle that deserves our time, attention and support? That seems to be a sad statement on our priorities.

Despite Doug having posted on Schlessinger’s N-word rant and my commenting on her quitting her show in response to the backlash, I actually hadn’t seen it.   Thinking it rather dubious that the reason Schlessinger said “nigger” several times on the air was because she’s a devotee of rap music and urban comics, I read it.

Here’s the relevant part:

SCHLESSINGER: No, no, no. I think that’s — well, listen, without giving much thought, a lot of blacks voted for Obama simply ’cause he was half-black. Didn’t matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise. Not everything that somebody says — we had friends over the other day; we got about 35 people here — the guys who were gonna start playing basketball. I was going to go out and play basketball. My bodyguard and my dear friend is a black man. And I said, “White men can’t jump; I want you on my team.” That was racist? That was funny.

CALLER: How about the N-word? So, the N-word’s been thrown around –

SCHLESSINGER: Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is nigger, nigger, nigger.

[…]

CALLER: I can’t believe someone like you is on the radio spewing out the “nigger” word, and I hope everybody heard it.

SCHLESSINGER: I didn’t spew out the “nigger” word.

CALLER: You said, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.”

SCHLESSINGER: Right, I said that’s what you hear.

CALLER: Everybody heard it.

Goff actually has a pretty good point here.    Schlessinger was literally repeating what is in fact a very common word in the popular culture.  Even the very, very mainstream purveyors like Chris Rock use it constantly.

So, should they stop?

The late Richard Pryor — if not the pioneer of using the word in question in stand-up comedy, then certainly its most esteemed practitioner — repudiated it toward the end of his life.  (Note:  The N-word is used, along with healthy doses of the F-word.)

I’m pretty sympathetic to the argument that the use of the word by iconic figures in the pop culture mainstreams and perpetuates it.   At the same time, I’m pretty close to a free speech absolutist.

The word is used because it’s powerful and shocking.  Does its use for provocative effect by those without malign intent keep it alive and justify its use by those who mean it hurtfully?   Or does it transform the word into something more benign?

What’s interesting is that it wasn’t all that long ago that nigger, while understood to be vulgar, could be uttered on broadcast television, so long as it was clear that it was hurtful.    Apparently, the euphemism “the N-word” came into popularity during the O.J. Simpson trial 15 years ago and has replaced it in polite conversation.  (Amusingly, the Wikipedia entry at /wiki/Nigger is “Nigger” in the title tab but “The N-Word” on the page itself.)

So, clearly, the word is simultaneously dying in newspapers and broadcast media while it flourishes on the Internet, cable television, rap albums, and other media.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Peacewood says:

    May I just say how much I love your alt-text to the South Park image?

    Just in case, y’know, there was any doubt.

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  2. James Joyner says:

    Thanks. We’re all about the subtle here at OTB.

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  3. reid says:

    That was a hilarious episode.

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  4. Trumwill says:

    Goff asks why they chose this particular word is worth fighting over. Not a bad point, though as a white guy that doesn’t use the word I don’t feel particularly compelled to enter a discussion that doesn’t particularly involve me. I do ask the question from the white perspective: Why is the inability to say this word so troubling to some? Why is there the need to be able to use a word simply because others can? Why risk being perceived as a racist when you can simply not say the word?

    The rules on this word are blissfully simply. If you’re white, don’t say it or say it sparingly for context (Dr. Laura said it in context, but not sparingly). Or just don’t say it at all!

    There are two areas where I get concerned by or annoyed with political correctness. The first is when the rules are set up to prevent you from making a point that needs to be made. It gets to the point where one simply can’t make an argument against affirmative action or immigration without being called a racist by somebody. The minefield is too loaded and there is an incentive to dismiss ideological opponents as racist by those that defend AA and immigration (I am not particularly conservative on either subject). But that’s not the case here. There’s no argument that cannot be made using different terminology.

    The second area where I get concerned/annoyed is when the rules are not clear. That’s also not the case with this one. There was a period when the word went from being socially acceptable to socially unacceptable and there was a period of confusion when blacks adopted the word themselves, but the time for confusion has passed.

    Frankly, I wish a lot more PC-mandates were like this one. It’s easy to follow. It’s been clearly communicated. It doesn’t hinder communication.

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  5. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    So I guess freedom of speech is not an absolute. If it offends someone, we lose the freedom to do whatever that which offends. Wonder if that works in reverse? I am offended by Democrats who claim to have my best interests at heart and then steal my freedoms.

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  6. sam says:

    The use of the word by black folks is so richly interwoven with their history in our country I don’t think it’ll ever go away with them. To hear one black guy call another black guy a nigger, as in “Nigger, you crazy!”, to listen, really listen, is to hear overtones of affection, or anger, or resignation, or, or. But under all that is to hear, “You and I share the same life, are the same, are in this together.” It’s a way of signaling a common experience that black folks all over the country immediately understand. I was sitting around drinking with 5 or 6 black guys one time, one of whom was a close friend, and I said something, I forget what, but I’ll never forget what my friend said. He looked at me and said, “Nigger you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Nobody batted an eyelash. I thought then, and I still think now, that that was one of the purest expressions of friendship ever addressed to me.

    It’s use by black folks is, I think, to invert it’s use by those who do not wish them well: “Yeah, you can use that word in a nasty and hateful way, but we’ll use it and in such a way as to drain it of its nastiness and hatefulness. We’ll use it in such a way as to rob it of its power over us.”

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  7. James Joyner says:

    So I guess freedom of speech is not an absolute. If it offends someone, we lose the freedom to do whatever that which offends.

    Freedom of speech is protection from government (“Congress shall make no law…”). And it has never been an absolute even in that context.

    There’s a libertarian argument to be made against stifling expression of unpopular ideas through popular pressure. John Stuart Mill and others have made it eloquently. But you’re never going to have protection from others disagreeing with you. They, after all, have free speech rights, too.

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  8. Steve Plunk says:

    As Trumwill says the rules for this word are simple, if you’re white you can’t say. But doesn’t that bode ill for racial equality? A different set of rules for different races? That’s not being colorblind at all.

    The black community should end this double standard because the white community can’t. Dr. Laura points out the obvious and is immediately labeled a racist so who will dare bring it up for discussion now? I’m going to go watch ‘The Boondocks”. Now that show will start us all using the forbidden word.

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  9. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    My compliments Mr. Joyner on your choice to actually use the word rather than “N-Word” as others have done, including Doug Matconis in his post on this site. Perhaps if the use of this word is discussed openly and frequently it will become like the word “racist” — totally meaningless.

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  10. Alex Knapp says:

    It’s all about context.

    If you’re using the word in the context of making broad racial stereotypes, such as “blacks only voted for Obama because he’s black” and “all black people are good at basketball,” then you shouldn’t use it. Also, you shouldn’t perpetuate broad racial stereotypes. Also, if you read the context of the call even further, I might add that you shouldn’t tell a black caller that she’s “oversensitive” because she doesn’t like the fact that her white relatives make broad stereotypes about black people!

    It’s not just “Doctor” Laura’s use of the word that was offensive, it was her entire conversation that contextualized the quote.

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  11. James Joyner says:

    It’s not just “Doctor” Laura’s use of the word that was offensive, it was her entire conversation that contextualized the quote.

    I think that’s exactly right.

    I would note that the scare quotes are misplaced. Schlessinger has an earned doctorate from Columbia University, a very prestigious institution of higher learning. The problem is that the doctorate is in physiology and she’s practicing psychology on the air.

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  12. Trumwill says:

    As Trumwill says the rules for this word are simple, if you’re white you can’t say. But doesn’t that bode ill for racial equality? A different set of rules for different races? That’s not being colorblind at all.

    My mother calls me Fat Boy on account of my round shape when I was a baby. I’m not much overweight now (BMI of 27), but I used to be (BMI 33). Never bothered me to be offended when she called me Fat Boy. Someone else calls me Fat Boy, my perspective changes. Context.

    Likewise, when Jeff Foxworthy makes a joke at the expense of southerners (I was raised in the south) I respond differently than when someone with who always seems to be at odds with the south does the same. Context.

    When you’re on the inside of a group, they have no reason to believe that they’re being insulted when you say something potentially derogatory about the group to which you belong. Meanwhile, an outsider saying the same thing may or may not be hostile. At the very least, you’re prone to being misunderstood. You should not want to be misunderstood. You should not want to be mistaken for hostile. You should avoid saying it. Especially when you know ahead of time you are likely to be considered hostile for saying it.

    But the people that say it don’t mind being misunderstood. They don’t really respect the group to which they refer. If they did respect the group, they would avoid saying things that they know are going to make the group angry. That’s common courtesy and being discourteous needs to be called out.

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  13. G.A.Phillips says:

    Hell im still pi$$ed at that dang alarm company that only shows white rapist and burglars in their commercials…..

    Saying “nigger” is stupid unless your saying how stupid it is to say it, period. Except for my “nigga” said in warmth and affection, lol, a lot of my black friends say it to me, I say “sup dude”….

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  14. sam says:

    Er, how come my comment shows up episodically? I know it says awaiting moderation, but sometimes it here, sometimes its not. Is the robot malfunctioning?

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  15. James Joyner says:

    I know it says awaiting moderation, but sometimes it here, sometimes its not.

    Ironically, “nigger” is one of the words I’ve blacklisted. So, it required me to manually rescue the comment.

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  16. Richard Bottoms says:

    Why are white folks so upset they can’t say nigger anymore?

    Get over it already.

    It’s a free country and there’s no legal prohibition against being a blockhead. If you’re white I highly suggest you avoid:

    – watermelon jokes
    – fried chicken jokes
    – calling any black person boy, uppity, you people, nigga, or nigger

    To paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, who ironically is one of the few white people who gets to use the word — though only in his movies, “Your nigger privileges have been revoked.”You lost them by running the slave trade and seceding from the Union thus precipitating the Civil War, lynching Emmet Till, and blowing four little girls in a church.

    Feel free to say the word, but expect to get fired, rebuked or otherwise made uncomfortable unless WE decide you are in the club.

    Like Eminem, he’s in. Vanilla Ice, out.

    As a black man, I get to say nigga please to my homeboy if I want to, and Pat Buchanan can’t.

    And that’s jut tough noogies.

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  17. Idiot says:

    Remember Blazing Saddles that was written by Pryor and Brooks? Now on AMC it has been sanitized because the viewers can’t figure out that all the people who use the N word are the fools, bad guys, idiots, etc.

    At some point this all become silliness.

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  18. James Joyner says:

    Remember Blazing Saddles that was written by Pryor and Brooks? Now on AMC it has been sanitized because the viewers can’t figure out that all the people who use the N word are the fools, bad guys, idiots, etc.

    The word is used with excellent effect throughout “Pulp Fiction” as well.

    My favorite is a classic exchange in John Wayne’s “The Cowboys.” One of the boys remarks to the cook, Mr. Nightlinger (played by Roscoe Lee Browne), “We ain’t never seen us no nigger before.”

    Nighlinger replies, “Well, this must be a real treat for you then!”

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  19. sookie says:

    >> Frankly, I wish a lot more PC-mandates were like this one. <<

    Frankly, I wish there were no PC-mandates. Period.

    Free speech absolutist standing here as well.

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