Another Iteration of the “N-Word” Debate

I saw this story on CNN this morning. Debates regarding the use of the “N-Word” (Nigger) are not unusual. There was the well-known debate between public intellectuals Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, and there are the often had debates and arguments in barbershops and at family reunions across the country. The debate typically centers around a few questions:

1) Should the N-Word be used? Those who answer “yes” to this first question typically use what I’ll call the “re-appropriation approach.” This stance, at its best, acknowledges the tragic, painful, and deadly history related to the N-Word, but also maintains that black folk have successfully and powerfully re-appropriated the word giving it an endearing meaning. Taking what was meant for dehumanization and making it deeply humanizing  so that referring to a friend as “my nigga,” it is argued, has a very different meaning than a racist calling a black person “nigger.”

Those who answer this first question “no” usually maintain the “moratorium approach.” This approach says that the n-word is so deeply marred by hatred and tragedy that preceded and followed its use that it ought to be laid to rest until at least until the structure and function of society reflects having actually learned from (I can hear the “we have a black president!” retorts already:)).

2) Second question: (closely related to the first) why (or why not) is this issue important (or not)? Do we use it endearingly to subvert and remember? Do we not use it to forget and move on? Somewhere in between?

3) Thirdly, who is allowed to use the word? Should it now be limited to black people?

We could certainly add a host of other questions to this list, but I wonder what you all think?

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About bens3rd
I am a PhD candidate in Christian Theology and Social in the joint program at the University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology. I blog here when my Facebook posts get too long.

4 Responses to Another Iteration of the “N-Word” Debate

  1. dan hinz says:

    Ben,

    What do I do as a coach/teacher when my athletes/students call each other niggas in front of me?

    What do I do when when Mexican students call African American students “niggas” and African American students call Mexicans “dirty mexicans”, but then both students say they are “just playing”?

    And while 90+% of these interactions are cordial, a handful turn into heated exchanges because one student does not take the comment as a friendly term.

    So, again, what do I as a white “cracker” do as an authority figure who has a responsibility to set a culture in my wrestling/class room?

    • bens3rd says:

      Dan,

      I think a vital part of responding to the IMPORTANT questions you raise is re-aiming your questions so that they speak to both the personal (“what do i do?”) and the social/political (the interactions between the students and wrestlers you teach and coach).

      Why do the students feel comfortable using the racially charged language around you (and probably many other adults)?

      What accounts for the cordiality? And what accounts for the times the exchanges turn violent?

      Finally, and I think this is VERY important, how does your self-understanding as a “white ‘cracker'”/authority figure position you in all of this? Does that self-understanding position you in such a way that you are able to speak to the situation in a way that gives you the “authority” to pour love and life into these kids?

      Just some food for thought! (Seriously, I’m gonna call you soon!)

  2. Angela DiFuccia says:

    As much as it seems like a double standard the word does impact me differently when hearing it from a balck or white person. The history of the word is deplorable and to try to eliminate the word is a mistake. You can’t undo something that has already been done, and I believe that healing will only come from a place of acceptance and understanding… Not from moving on and letting the past stay in the past. When I hear someone who is not black use the word it shows ignorance and insensitivity to racial culture and history in this country. If you are black and want to use it I

  3. Angela DiFuccia says:

    … really do not find it offensive, unless a child is hearing it.

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