The N-word isn’t simply an expression rolling off the tongues of gangsta rappers and corner thugs. Sometimes public figures utter this divisive epithet – with explosive consequences.
Jesse Jackson knows this all too well. The civil rights activist made headlines for his gaffe during a Fox News appearance. Rev. Jackson referred to Sen. Barack Obama in colorful terms while under the impression that his microphone was off.
Jackson’s slip-up illustrates the pervasiveness of the N-word. Is this term considered freedom of speech or hate speech? Does tone or context matter? Dr. Phil explored these issues on the show “The N-Word Debate.” Some black audience members admitted that they use the N-bomb as a term of endearment for friends, believing they can reclaim a word deeply rooted in racism. For others, nothing can scrub away the taint of bigotry associated with those six letters. Comedian Sheryl Underwood wasn’t amused when a white guest, Rachel, said she calls her husband, a white man, this epithet. Rev. Al Sharpton, who joined the show via satellite, told Dr. Phil that blacks send mixed signals by embracing the N-word, and wants the expression banned.
In this DrPhil.com Exclusive, Latoya Peterson, Editrix of Racialicious, gives her thoughts on this polarizing epithet and how people can confront their own prejudices.
Should the N-word be banned altogether?
LP: A lot of times, people focus on the word as if it is some kind of absolute rule, where we have seen that if one word is banned, people just shift to other racially coded words, like Canadian or Reggin. It is better to attack the racist intent behind the word. For example, with the Michael Richards controversy ” he was on stage openly screaming about lynching and sticking forks in people. And yet, when the controversy was reported, the only thing that was focused on was the N-word. Not the horribly racist things that were said, but just the word.
I highly doubt any word can be banned. I am not a fan of the word, but people have different ideas around language and reclamation. But what’s more important to understand is that banning the word isn’t going to make racism go away.
How would you respond to the argument that comedians and rappers use the N-word, so why should non-blacks be held to a different standard?
LP: I am always a bit confused at this logic. I don’t really understand why a white person would want to use the N-word. It’s not their word. It would be like me trying to use an anti-gay slur. No one ever denigrated me or my ancestors with that word. It’s a word I can use to hurt people, but means nothing to me as far as reclaiming. It just doesn’t make logical sense. How is your life enriched because you can now use an epithet?
How would you respond to a non-black person who tells a person of color, “Slavery ended long ago. You just need to get over it!”
LP: After slavery ended, Jim Crow laws took its place. Those laws were only officially repealed in 1965. And throughout that whole time period, blacks were being discriminated against, murdered and had their legal property seized by bands of white citizens intent on keeping the social order. We’re about 40 years away from there now, about two generations. Have we really managed to undo 400 years of history treating blacks as subhuman in 40 years?
How do you define anti-racist work, and list three or four steps that people can take to begin this process?
LP: Anti-racist work is really a combination of things.
Read and listen to media aimed at the communities of color in your area. What is being published in the neighborhood gazette? Listen to progressive radio shows, like NPR’s “News and Notes.” You might find a completely different perspective on an issue that you are familiar with.
Understand that you are a small part of a very large system. Racism takes a lot of forms in the United States. Sometimes it is something easy to understand, like hate speech or individual actions. Sometimes, it is something much more complicated to understand, like systemic racism.
Remember that stopping racism starts with you. Sometimes, ending racism seems like such a large problem, it is easy to get overwhelmed. It is okay to focus on things you can control. Challenge your own thinking. Challenge your family. Read books written about race. We can all be a part of shaping a better world, even if it is a simple as learning something new and sharing that knowledge with one other friend. There are small steps we all can take.
Racialicious, founded and published by Carmen Van Kerckhove, is a blog exploring the intersection between race and pop culture. For more information, visit www.racialicious.com.