The N-Word Debate

Not Always Black-and-White?

The N-word isn't simply an expression rolling off the tongues of gangsta rappers and corner thugs. Even public figures utter this epithet, sometimes in ways that are, well, public.


Jesse Jackson knows this all too well. The civil rights activist made headlines recently 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.


Dr. Phil examines the minister's misstep. "As I've said, I don't know that [Rev. Jackson] really said it publicly. I think this was a private conversation that was picked up by a mic," he says. "One of the questions of today is: Does that make a difference? Does it make a difference if you say it publicly, or if you say it in a conversation where you have an expectation of privacy?

"We only heard what Jesse Jackson said what he wanted to do to Barack Obama's anatomy," Dr. Phil continues. "He did say the N-word, but Fox never aired it. Only after the transcript was leaked did Fox verify that the incident, in fact, did happen."

Dr. Phil reads a transcript of Rev. Jackson's on-air blunder: "Barack … he's talking down to black people, telling n******s how to behave."

Dr. Phil welcomes his esteemed panel to the show: Michael Graham, conservative radio talk show host from Boston's 96.9 WTKK; funnywoman Sheryl Underwood; comedian and writer Paul Mooney and Hill Harper, CSI: New York actor and author of Letters to a Young Brother and Letters to a Young Sister. Rev. Al Sharpton joins the discussion via satellite from New York.

Dr. Phil points out that Rev. Sharpton came to Jesse Jackson's defense after the latter's much-publicized faux pas. "I don't think he actually said it on Fox News Channel. I think he said it privately. I'm not sure that makes a difference, but that's something we want to talk about," Dr. Phil says. "What about this Jesse Jackson incident? Is that something that crosses the line?"


"I think it is wrong to take a position and do the opposite, and I think he was right to apologize. What I said was just like we condemned [Don] Imus, and then when Imus came back to work, we said, ‘Let's see what happens. Give him the benefit of the doubt,' then we certainly can give Rev. Jackson the same opportunity to redeem himself," Rev. Sharpton replies. "But I did not, at all, defend or justify what [Rev. Jackson] said."


Rev. Sharpton explains why he wants this divisive expression banned. "There was a civil rights case in New York City; a young black man was assaulted by a gang of three whites. They told him, as they beat him almost to death, that they didn't want any N's in the neighborhood. We marched to get them prosecuted. They were indicted by the Queens district attorney for a hate crime," he tells Dr. Phil. "The hate crime was certified by the fact that they used the N-word. Their defense in court was, ‘The N-word is no longer a hate crime, because it is a term of endearment.'"

"You actually led a march on three record labels that were producing hip-hop music that used these words," Dr. Phil says. "Tell me about that."

"We had, last August in New York, marched on several record companies, again, on consistency. That's why I didn't march on the artists. An artist has a right to say what they want to say; you can choose to agree or not agree. But record companies say, ‘We have standards. You cannot make records that denigrate police,' and you shouldn't, or that denigrate homosexuals, and you shouldn't, or Jews, and you shouldn't. Well, then who decides about my right to do it against blacks or women?" Rev. Sharpton asks. "We said the N-word, the H-word and the B-word should be the standard, along with those other groups that I've named, or there should be no standard. But you can't have it that if I say, ‘I'm going to make a rap against homosexuals' " hate speech. ‘I'm going to do it against Italians' " hate speech. ‘Irish' " hate speech. ‘If I'm going to call Blacks the N-word' " free speech. There's a double standard there. What I want is one standard. Either you can call everybody what you want, or you can't call me that either."

Controversial comic Paul Mooney shares his observations on the scandal. "Jesse came to me when [Seinfeld actor and comedian] Michael Richards had his complete breakdown; it wasn't a nervous breakdown on stage. Jesse got up with me and said we weren't going to use this word anymore. So when I saw Jesse using it, even privately, it kind of shocked me," he says with his trademark deadpan delivery. Then he tries to inject some levity into the conversation. "Well, I said, ‘He's old. He probably has Alzheimer's and doesn't remember saying it."


Paul admits that he had a hard time bidding the expletive adieu. "I was, like, the ambassador for that word. I don't know if you know my career. I worked with Richard Pryor for 32 years, and we used that word like we used hello. Richard was the first stand-up " he went to Africa, and he said it wasn't in the African language, and there was no such thing, and he was my best friend," he recalls fondly. "White America invented the word. Everybody in this room, we're all responsible when Jesse says it, or anyone says it. We all say it. If we don't say it, we think it. We've been programmed on this word. So I said I wasn't going to say the word anymore, and I've stuck to it."


"As a stand-up comic, I should be able to use every word in the lexicon to bring my joke out in its original form. Paul and I have worked together, and I've used every word, but now I'm evolving away from the use of certain words, because 1) I'm getting older, and 2) it's not necessary for me to do this," Sheryl says. "But Rev. Al, and all those who are on the front line of the struggle to change how a people is perceived, is absolutely correct in the fact that we have to start with the way we utter things about ourselves, and the politicization of a word that is derogatory and indefensible."

Dr. Phil turns the floor over to Ray, a young black man in the audience. "You say that African-Americans should be able to use this word any way they want to," he notes.

"I'm 25 years old. If I want to say it, I can say it," Ray says.

Dr. Phil wonders aloud if the young man embraces a double standard. "You don't want white folks saying it," he says.

"No, and I've never met one who has walked up to me and said it," Ray replies.

Michael offers a sobering perspective. "I grew up in rural South Carolina surrounded by large, hairy people named Bubba, many of them women. The head of the KKK for the whole state lived about a mile from my house. His sons used to ride my bus, and beat the crap out of me and call me N-lover," the talk show host remembers. He turns to Ray. "If I told them that now, in my 40s, a young man would stand up and use that word for himself that they used to describe you, that you would use it proudly, and put it on a T-shirt and Vans, they would be thrilled. They would be happy. They would go, ‘Yes. We must be winning.' You are taking in this tiny bit of poison, this tiny bit of hate on you."

"What this young man is saying is that he's taking the political and racial hatred and sting out of it," Sheryl surmises. "We're not saying he's right, but if you treat me like that " if you make sure that I can't get a job, if you make sure that I cannot own property, if you make sure you control the means for me to have a quality of life, equal, as an American " then you might as well have called me that."

"What is it that people don't get " either white people, African-Americans, Hispanics " what is it that people don't get that they continue to say this?" Dr. Phil asks Rev. Sharpton. 

"I think, because many of us have used it ourselves, it has sent confusing messages, but I think it was a poisonous word in its inception," the civil rights leader replies. "Clearly, we're dealing with a double standard here, and we cannot allow Americans to lock into a double standard."

"Do Caucasians not get it?" Dr. Phil asks Michael.

"No one has ever sounded smarter from using the N-word, so why would you announce yourself as a moron, white or black," he answers. "It shouldn't be the N-word; it's the M-word."

Hill Harper drills down to the heart of the matter. "We can spend time talking about whether to use a word or not, but that's not actually dealing with the underlying issues that are creating problems in this country," says the actor, who also holds a JD from Harvard Law School. "If we can retire the word, so we don't have to do another show like this, maybe the next show can be about real institutionalized racism and prejudice."

Rachel, a white audience member, freely uses the N-word. She even calls her spouse, a white man, this racialized term. "The word is never going to go away, so if we can actually say the word " like me, for instance " if I can say the word, and not have any racial motivation behind it, what's wrong with that?" she asks. "Because I'm white?"

"Can I call you a *?" Sheryl shoots back heatedly. "That's a derogatory term. It's disrespectful. I don't care who you sleep with, who you're married to, you will never be able to justify the use of the word *."

Rachel stands her ground. "I think it's a great thing, if we can say that word. If a white person can say that word, and have no racism in their heart, I think we've come a long way in America."

"You, as a white woman, are a minority," Paul scoffs.

"Oh, I feel like a minority," Rachel counters.

"As a black person, you don't have a clue what I go through," Paul says.

Another audience member, Linda, takes the funnyman to task. "Get over it. This is America," she says.

"You get over it!" Paul says.

He and Linda bicker.

An African-American audience member shares her personal experiences. "I do understand the importance of getting rid of the word so that we can address some of the underlying issues. However, I am an attorney. I've gone to graduate school. I've been in graduate school, walked up to a group of my friends before and said, ‘Hey, what's up, Ns?' The whole group of them " Mexican, Middle Eastern, Asian, whatever " the whole group of them said, ‘Nothing. Nothing's happening,'" she tells Dr. Phil. "I am married to a white man, and I have used it toward him before " talking about men in general " and used the N-word, and not using it as derogatory, merely using it to describe a group of people who are of a certain sex. I've used it in so many different ways, and I don't think, in order for non-blacks to treat me with respect that, suddenly, I need to get rid of a word."

"How would you feel if your husband said it to you?" Dr. Phil inquires.

"I don't care if my husband says it to me, as long as he's not saying it in a way that's derogatory," the woman answers.

"What if a judge used it on you and said, ‘N, approach the bench'?" Sheryl asks, her question laced with mirth.

"Now is that professional? No," the attorney replies.

"Wait, baby. You said it's OK," Sheryl says in mock deference.

Hill wants the attorney to see things in a different light. "What we're talking about up here is not censorship, and no one wants to go into your bedroom, with your husband, and decide what you should or should not say," he tells her. "The difference is the idea of being able to take a step back and say, ‘Why can't I just as soon use " if I'm going to come up with a term of endearment " one where the historical meaning of the term is endearment?' I can call you 'queen.' I can call you 'beauty.'"

"He does too," she says, referring to her better half. "The word only has power if you give it to it."

Dr. Phil asks for Rev. Sharpton's final thoughts. "I think no one should use it privately or publicly. We must have one standard," Rev. Sharpton says. "I have a problem when people want to say because of whatever their private habits are, that's going to govern public policy and law. That's my problem, because now we have altered the legal barrier of my being protected from a derogatory hate term like anyone else in America. Some people are arguing privacy; I'm arguing civil rights."