Ugly and powerful N-word should simply never be spoken

October 02, 2006|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- There is only one thing that is certain about use of the "N-word," and that lasting truth is uttered by the courageous Atticus Finch, hero of To Kill a Mockingbird.

When his daughter, Scout, questions him about the dangerous heterogeneity of his clientele - "Do you defend niggers, Atticus?" - he responds with a pearl of wisdom: "Of course I do. Don't say `nigger,' Scout. That's common."

What Finch said then - actually, the words are those of my hometown heroine, Harper Lee, who wrote the book in the late 1950s - has retained its simple profundity. Other than an unfortunate comfort with crudeness, there is little else that can be automatically associated with any speaker who uses that epithet. How could it be otherwise, when it is used by white supremacists to demean - but also by black rappers and comedians to entertain?

Yet the campaign for the U.S. Senate in Virginia has been dominated for the last week or so by questions, revelations and accusations over the use of the N-word. The charge has dogged Republican incumbent George Allen since he used a different racial slur to insult a young man volunteering for his Democratic opponent, James Webb.

But Mr. Allen's supporters have flung the charge right back at Mr. Webb. As a result, campaign platforms and position papers have been cast aside while journalists pursue any report that either man may have uttered the N-word.

The obsession with that highly charged epithet is just one indication of a continuing difficulty with discussing racism, still alive and well in America but increasingly hard to define and identify. So political and social arbiters have agreed on one easy rule: Use of the N-word is prima facie evidence of a vicious bigotry.

Except it isn't - at least not of the sort of malicious racism that matters. The use of any demeaning racial and ethnic epithets might, instead, be evidence of arrogance, ignorance or immaturity, or some ruinous combination of the three. In the case of Mr. Allen and Mr. Webb, mere use of the N-word tells voters little about the man or his morality. Context is everything.

I've known black parents to protest classroom use of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even Mockingbird, simply because the N-word turns up in the dialogue. Those parents show a troubling inability to make critical judgments about the motives and intentions of some of American literature's best-known characters. Yet they usually allow their children to consume the raunchiest rap music - full of violence, misogyny and liberal use of a certain epithet.

What matters most in the Virginia case is not what happened in the 1970s or '80s, but what happened just two months ago. At an August campaign rally in Virginia, Mr. Allen pointed out to the crowd a young Indian-American, S. R. Sidarth, who was videotaping Mr. Allen as a representative of Mr. Webb's campaign. Speaking from the podium, Mr. Allen twice called Mr. Sidarth a "macaca" - or monkey - ending his tirade with, "Let's give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

Although Mr. Allen first claimed he had made up the word, it is a common racial slur among white colonists in Northern Africa; because Mr. Allen's mother grew up in Tunisia, he was undoubtedly familiar with the term. Equally telling, he "welcomed" Mr. Sidarth to America.

As it happens, Mr. Sidarth was born in Virginia. He's just as American as Mr. Allen is. But Mr. Allen is unable to see it that way because he's too blinded by bigotry and xenophobia.

As for the N-word, there are few epithets or slurs with more power to generate controversy. Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy explored that unusual power in a scholarly book called Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. In it, he writes, "There is much to be gained by allowing people of all backgrounds to yank [the word] away from white supremacists, to subvert its ugliest denotation."

I respectfully disagree. I've always liked the advice Atticus gave Scout: Don't use that word.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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