The N-Word

Today’s Washington Post has a long, thoughtful piece on the “n-word” — the most hateful, racially charged word in the English language.  It’s worth reading in full.  And here is the uncomfortable issue that the article explores:  can the n-word, which in its a-ending form has become increasingly prevalent in youth culture, be redefined and eventually stripped of its racist connotations, or should the use of the word, in any variation, just be stopped?

This year the National Football League has empowered referees to penalize teams whose players use the n-word.  It’s the NFL’s response to several recent incidents with racial overtones — but the decision to penalize the use of the word has been criticized by many players as out of touch with the common use of the word among younger people of different races.  Indeed, internet search engines indicate that, in its a-ending form, the n-word is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter.  The resurgence of the n-word among young people is often attributed to hip-hop culture, where the word is commonly used in the lyrics, and even the titles, of popular songs.  The Post article recounts a story about a recent Kanye West concert where the performer gave white concertgoers permission to say the word as they sang along with his songs, and they did so.

I don’t listen to hip-hop music, and I was unaware of the extent to which the n-word has been reintroduced in the vernacular of the younger generation.  I think that development is very troubling and unfortunate.  I don’t think American culture should follow the lead of rappers in the use of the n-word any more than it should in adopting the misogynistic, twerking, gunfire-at-every-party elements of hip-hop culture, either.

There is a generational element to this issue; for those of us who grew up during the days of the Civil Rights marches and police dogs being unleashed to attack peaceful protesters, the n-word is unforgivable.  I don’t care if a hip-hop artist gives me permission to say it.  I won’t use the word because I don’t want to be linked in any way to the brutal racists of the past, and I do not believe that — changed ending or not — the word can ever be sanitized and divorced from its violent, terrible roots.

So put me in the NFL’s camp on this one.  It may prove to be impossible to stop the use of the n-word, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Young people should be educated about why the word is so hurtful and discouraged from using it.  I agree with Denyce Graves, the terrific opera singer, who is quoted in the Post article as saying:  “I know we will never be rid of this word, [but] I would love to see it just vanish.”  I say, let it die.

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