Fighting words?

Editorial Notebook

December 03, 2005

When rapper Kanye West appeared at the 1st Mariner Arena in Baltimore last month, much of his performance was noticeably absent of a word that is ubiquitous in his rap songs. For most of the show, the N-word - the actual word and not this substitute for the racial epithet - was not used. It was undoubtedly a conscious decision by Mr. West, who has admitted to feeling conflicted about using the word, and an indication of his sensitivity about its use by white people.

Toward the end of the concert, however, when it came time to sing his catchy hit "Gold Digger," Mr. West announced to the white fans in the audience that it would be the only time they would be allowed to say the word. And they did, singing the refrain along with him and black fans who packed the arena: "I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger, but she ain't f---in' with no broke n----er."

It was a disappointing moment that undermined what could have been an important point made by Mr. West, who, like his contemporaries in hip-hop music, has a potent influence on American language and culture. By using the N-word himself, and inviting white people to use it, he continued to blur the lines about the usage of one of the most loaded words in the English language.

The N-word, like no other racial epithet, has become a widely used and accepted part of this country's lexicon. For many Americans, blacks and whites alike, but particularly for older blacks all too familiar with the word's painful history of hate and racial subjugation, this is an unfortunate development that they rightly find disturbing.

Who can use the N-word and in what context is an old debate among blacks. Those who refuse to use it and those who use it colloquially are generally divided along generational lines. But white people are increasingly, though tentatively, getting in on the debate and voicing confusion about the mixed messages they get from black people who embrace the word and those deeply offended by it.

If pop culture is any indication, users of the N-word are winning the debate. It is used frequently on black-oriented cable television programs. Hollywood studios are allowing it in more movies. It is increasingly creeping into newspapers - usually in quotes - that once used it judiciously.

In the premiere episode of the new animated series The Boondocks, based on cartoonist and Columbia native Aaron McGruder's controversial and racially tinged comic strip of the same name, the N-word was uttered 15 times by various black characters on the 30-minute program.

In one scene, a black character uses the word repeatedly in a song at a garden tea party attended mostly by wealthy whites.

"I think the N-word is OK as long as they say it," a white female character explains to a perplexed white woman seated beside her.

The observation was sadly correct. Black teenagers may use the word affectionately among themselves but consider it "fighting words" if used by white teenagers. Film director Spike Lee, who is black, harshly criticized Quentin Tarantino, the white director, for the repeated use of the N-word in his critically acclaimed film Pulp Fiction. Meanwhile, the characters in Mr. Lee's equally praised films, Jungle Fever and Do the Right Thing, which explored race relations, used the word generously.

Young blacks are particularly impenitent about this issue. It's just a word, they argue, and they intend to demystify, deconstruct and take ownership of it, much like Mexican-Americans did with "Chicano" and gays did with "queer." But can you really defeat a noxious word by celebrating and widely popularizing it?

Some observers, such as activist Dick Gregory, argue that using the sanitized "N-word" is more offensive than using the epithet itself - a cheap attempt to erase America's legacy of racism.

It is a complex cultural dynamic, but considering the word's painful legacy and confusion over inconsistent usage, wouldn't it be better to raise the level of public discourse and not use it at all? - Marjorie Valbrun

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