A short history of rationalization, hate, and debate
Pizza mogul “Papa” John Schnatter is only the latest public figure to use the n-word and then (kind of) apologize. Because Schnatter blurted out the insult during a communications training session rather than directly in the face of an African-American, he argues that his use of the word doesn’t constitute a “slur.”
“It was a social strategy and media planning and training,” he argued, “and I repeated something that somebody else said and said, ‘We’re not going to say that.’”
Of course, this is just one example. In this political climate, it seems an overview and brief examination of the n-word, its use, and relevant examples is in order.
- In 2002, Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy, who wrote the book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, said that while the word has been used to “terrorize and humiliate” African-Americans, “it’s also been used as a term of endearment and a gesture of solidarity.”
- In 2006, Michael Richards, who played the lovable and goofy character Kramer on the TV sitcom Seinfeld, used the n-word on stage. His racist rant was a tirade aimed at hecklers in the audience at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, and subsequently aired nationwide. The outburst shocked not only his fans, but summoned an ugly time in US history and derailed his career.
- In 2011 it was disclosed that at the entrance of former Texas governor and then-presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s hunting camp features a rock painted in block letters with the word “Niggerhead.” For decades leading up to that, Perry’s camp hosted lawmakers, friends, and supporters, none of whom apparently had enough of a problem with the fixture to speak out about it publicly.
- In discussing Perry’s highly offensive racial marker, Barbara Walters, co-host of The View, herself used the n-word, sparking a debate with her then-co-host Sherri Shepherd. “I’m saying when you say the word, I don’t like it,” said Shepherd, who added that she’s used it among African-American family and friends. “When white people say it, it brings up feelings in me.”
- In 2015, President Barack Obama used the word on the podcast WTF with Marc Maron during an interview about America’s racial history—creating shockwaves. At the time, legal analyst Sunny Hostin said the president’s use of the word was inappropriate because of his office and the history of the word itself. On the other hand, New York Times columnist Charles Blow countered that assertion, saying Obama used the word correctly in a teaching moment.
- Obama’s send-off at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner ended with the n-word. Comedian Larry Wilmore, and then-host of Comedy Central’s The Nightly Show, in his closing remarks thanked Obama for his tenure as president and the mark he made in the world, saying, “…to live in your time, Mr. President, when a black man can lead the entire free world. Words alone do me no justice. So, Mr. President, if I’m going to keep it 100: Yo, Barry, you did it, my n—. You did it.” Indeed, there were audible gasps and visible grimaces of shock, pain, and embarrassment.
- Last year, Martha Stewart dropped the N-bomb during a taping of Martha and Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. Stewart, still a neophyte to hip-hop culture, asked during a filming with Lil Yachty on the show, “Does it upset you when Snoop says ‘nigga shit?’”
- The word by comedian Bill Maher last year on his HBO show, Real Time with Bill Maher. A lot of hurt came after the guest, US Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, invited Maher to visit Nebraska and “work in the fields,” and Maher mockingly responded, “Work in the fields? … I am a house nigger.”
- Dennis Lehane, Boston native and best-selling novelist of Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island, and Mystic River, to name a few, used the word at Emerson College’s commencement last year. In talking about Boston’s 1970s busing crisis, Lehane highlighted how white opponents of school desegregation shouted, “Niggers out” at protests. Twitter blew up attacking Lehane, and he apologized immediately.
Is there a double standard here? After Maher dropped the word, some people on social media defended him, saying that he used a modified version, as in it ended in an “a” rather than an “r.” They claimed he morphed the word into a term of endearment. I contend that you can’t conjugate the word, because it’s so firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language and is still used to disparage African-Americans today. Many slaveholders pronounced the word with the “a” ending, and in the 1920s, many African-Americans used the “a” version as a pejorative to denote class difference. The confusion, however, illustrates what happens when an epithet like the n-word, once banned from polite and public conversation, gains a broad-based cultural acceptance.
Many African-Americans, and not just the hip-hop generation, say that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and is a form of resistance against the dominant culture’s use of it. In other words, only they have a license to use it. However, the notion that it is acceptable for African-Americans to refer to each other using the n-word while also considering it racist for others outside the race unquestionably sets up a double standard. Also, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is a reductio ad absurdum argument, since language is a public enterprise.
The fact that some African-Americans appropriate the n-word does not negate our long history of internalized self-hatred. Rather, our society’s neo-revisionist use of the word makes it even harder to purge the sting of it from the American psyche.
Language is a representation of culture, and reinscribes ideas and assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation that we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations, and consequently transmit generationally. My enslaved ancestors knew that their liberation was not only rooted in their acts of protests, but also in their use of language, which is why they used the liberation narrative of the Exodus story in the Old Testament as their talking book. The Exodus story was used to rebuke systemic oppression, racist themes, and negative images of themselves.
Our use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as a people—both white and black Americans—have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of epithets. Some activists argue that Michael Richards and offenders like him should be made to volunteer in a predominately African-American community, while others claim that in such places African-Americans are keeping the n-word alive. What could work for many, though, is a history lesson, because reclaiming racist phrases doesn’t eradicate baggage or correct fraught racial relations.
As “Papa” John Schnatter has proven again, what’s clear is that use of the n-word is capable of keeping hate and hurt alive.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.