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How Would You Kill The N-Word?

We've decided to take a weekly look at a word or phrase that's caught our attention, whether for its history, usage, etymology or just because it has an interesting story.

NOTE TO READERS: This is a post about one of the harshest racial slurs in American English. In the interest of forthrightness, we're going to use the slur throughout this essay. In other words, you'll see "nigger" used throughout the essay. We understand that the word is upsetting, so we wanted to offer people a chance to opt out now

You can set your watch to it. Every few months, some person of note gets in trouble for saying nigger. This summer's been especially busy: In the last eight weeks, we've had controversies involving former NFL player Hugh Douglas, current NFL player Riley Cooper, Trayvon Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel, the comedian Tim Allen and disgraced TV food personality Paula Deen.

After each incident, after the perfunctory opprobrium is directed at the person who initially used the word, comes the invariable call for everyone — particularly in hip-hop — to stop using the word nigger. But I always wonder, given its widespread use (and the myriad ways in which people use it): How would stamping it out even work?

In the aftermath of the Deen hullabaloo in July, Don Lemon, the CNN anchor, held a roundtable about the word's use (in which nigger was treated so delicately that some of his panelists pointed to flashcards with the word on it in lieu of saying it). He ultimately called for young black kids to stop saying the word.1

"Have you ever considered that you may be perpetuating the stereotype that massa intended? Acting like a nigger," Lemon said in closing to viewers at home. (Apparently, Paula Deen was waiting for the go-ahead from Kendrick Lamar before she felt OK using it.)

After Lemon's response, clumsy as it was, I wanted to ask him and the others who make this argument, the same question: How do you go about getting rid of a word like nigger? Is targeting a word for extinction, even a nettlesome and ugly one like this one, even possible?

It's not like people haven't tried. In the 1990s, some activists pushed to have the word purged from the dictionary, while the NAACP pushed to have Webster's Dictionary stress the word's negative connotation. In 2007, the civil rights group even gave nigger a mock funeral as a way to symbolize their push to wipe it out.

The Rev. Otis Moss III of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — the former church home of President Obama and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — echoed Lemon's feelings when we spoke a few months back and said he felt that the word's use was a sign of internalized self-hatred. "[It] has such power that even if you're trying to use it positively, your subconscious wraps around the negativity of the word," he said. (Moss also delivered remarks at the word's aforementioned funeral.) In this construction, nigger is more than an ugly word; its usage, in almost every context and by almost every speaker, is a kind of stone weighing down on the souls of black folks.

But several academics I spoke with said the word endures because it's so poisonous. And trying to make it more radioactive would likely have the counterproductive effect of making it even harder to kill.

"In some ways, I think the word's more toxic and more forbidden certainly than it ever was," Geoffrey Nunberg, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, says. But, he added, "the more [taboo you make it], the more prurient the pleasure is people take in saying it."

Nunberg says that nigger always had the element of taboo — even among landed slave owners. "I think it's important to realize that it was never OK to say it," he said. It's for that reason, Nunberg said, that you wouldn't have seen many people spraying it around even during the slavery era; Quentin Tarantino's pulpy slavery flick, Django Unchained — in which the word was uttered more than 100 times, by some counts — was an ahistorical embellishment. "If you were an upper-class Charlestonian in the 1800s, I don't think you use that word."

To make his point, Nunberg shared an election pamphlet from 1865 that quotes William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state. Seward dismisses a presidential candidate because the candidate says negro with two G's — the implication here is that the White House hopeful was unsophisticated. Seward considered the man unfit for the presidency not because he was a racist but because he wasn't a gentleman.

Other anti-black slurs, like jigaboo, simply died off because of disuse. But John McWhorter, the linguist and political gadfly, said that nigger happened to just be around at the historical moment when there started to be some social consequence for using racist slurs. "[That] had the effect of making the word more powerful and long-lived because now, to use it is to make a big noise or to be naughty," he says. "If 'coon' had been the term of choice then, I suspect it would now be the term decorating rap."

Neal Lester, who teaches a course at Arizona State University about the word's history, says it spread into wider usage during Reconstruction through the early 20th century, when it dotted children's rhymes and even the names of consumer products. But, he says, "there are ways that the radioactive part was always there." Lester's class isn't about an argument for or against its use, although he is pointedly unmoved by arguments about nigger being re-appropriated by black folks. ("I don't buy it because I'm not quite sure you can reclaim a word that you don't own.") And he points to incidents like the racist tweets directed at the Washington Capitols' Joel Ward following his game-winning goal in the NHL playoffs last season as evidence of its irredeemability. Lester makes a common argument: If the word can still be used as a vile epithet, it can't be considered neutral or harmless in any context.

The black-people-use-it-all-the-time-so-why-can't-I argument is a popular rejoinder; Dr. Laura Schlessinger made the argument after she was chided for using it on her radio show. But these arguments rest on the idea that the word mutated only recently into its "friend/brother" iteration. But McWhorter says that the reappropriative usage — that is, among blacks to other blacks as a term of endearment — is hardly new, and predates hip-hop by quite a bit. "We're romanticizing the way the N-word was used in the past," he says. "You can see 100 years ago that people were using the N-word in the same affectionate way. You can see it in Zora Neale Hurston's [writing] and not just once."

In other words, the racially pejorative usage of nigger and the in-group usage of nigger have long existed side by side; the word and our racial dynamics are messy enough for it to simultaneously represent different, disparate ideas.

But like other profanities, nigger gets cut out of radio and TV edits of hip-hop songs already; if it's everywhere, it's also nowhere. Lemon's argument calls for a prohibition on its use in our popular culture, as if that isn't already broadly in place.

So might making nigger less fraught lead to it fading away? Is there some kind of historical precedent for that idea?

No one gave this argument much weight. "Like other strong slurs, the N-word inherits its toxicity from the larger culture," Nunberg says. "So long as there are virulent forms of racism around, they'll continue to infect the word. It will be weakened only when those attitudes are attenuated, in the same way that social acceptance of Irish-Americans has softened the contempt that was implicit in 'mick' in the 19th century."

He pauses a second.

"That could take a while," Nunberg says.

1Contrast this with Samuel L. Jackson's conversation with an interviewer who coyly questioned him about the word's use in one of his films. Jackson prodded the reporter to actually use the word being discussed; the reporter declined.

Postscript: In the interest of full disclosure, I don't personally use "nigger" or any of its variants in conversations with friends, but I've been called it both pejoratively by white folks and affectionately by other black folks. Suffice it to say, I knew the difference.

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