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A few weeks back, there was some discussion in the paper about the N-word.
Earlier this year, the NFL began formal discussions on whether the N-word should be banned, and if so what penalty should be levied against a player for using it.
African-American Richard Sherman, football cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, thinks banning the N-word is in itself racist. He noted, “It’s weird they’re targeting one specific word. Why wouldn’t all curse words be banned then?”
Sherman added that when spoken by an African-American and pronounced ending in “-a”, it is not racist. In fact, in that situation, it’s considered a term of endearment.
Term of endearment? Harry Carlson, another African American NFL player, but from a generation prior, disagrees. He challenged younger players who use the “-a” version to “go visit your grandfather and use it on him. See how endeared he feels!”
Whether debating the “-er” or “-a” version, no one can deny that the word is ubiquitous in the world of rap music. Lyrics on slapping hos, selling drugs, shooting cops and flashing bling are seasoned with more N-words than one might hear at a KKK rally. Gansta rappers claim that it’s perfectly acceptable for anyone to use the word in standard conversation.
That is, as long as you have the rapping etiquette to also mention that you’re beating your ho.
Whoopie Goldberg used it in her comedy skits for a long time, but now has declared it taboo. Paula Deen’s empire collapsed when it was revealed that she used the word. Madonna was criticized for “dropping the n-bomb” in a tweet. News media has attacked a long list of Hollywood stars who used the word (and subsequently apologized).
And of course, classical literature is inundated with it. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” “Of Mice and Men,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Captains Courageous,” “Live and Let Die,” “South Sea Tales” — these all use the N-word as a literary device to document the time era depicted in the stories.
Publishers have begun releasing editions of classics with the N-word removed, usually replaced by the word “slave.” For instance, Otfriend Preubler’s “The Little Witch” was reissued to remove the N-word, as was “Tom Sawyer.”
So what to do? Ban the books? Rewrite history? Join the crowd, put on rapper costumes and use it with impunity?
I’m not arrogant enough to claim that I have the right answer to this debate, but I do understand some of the genesis of its use.
Back in college, my best friend was Carl, an African-American. His sister Sandra got to know me well enough to treat me like family. One day, Sandra and I were arguing over some political issue, and Sandra got mad at me. She jumped up and yelled, “You stupid n*****!”
I must admit, I had never been called that before. Sandra then burst out laughing and ran out of the room. I turned to Carl and asked, “What the hell just happened?”
Carl said, “She knows you too well and forgot you weren’t black.”
Oddly enough, Sandra’s mindless willingness to call me a n***** was a compliment in that it denoted how at ease she was around me. But it also taught me that the N-word was far more complicated in its definition than I had ever realized.
But politics and rappers and classical literature aside, the simple fact is — it’s a nasty, vile, hurtful word. People who use it and try to defend it as a shining example of free speech are themselves shining examples of what you get with an open mouth and a closed mind.
I choose not to use it, in any situation. I choose not to say it, to write it, whether ending in a “-er” or an “-a,” or any other derivation. The word has only one purpose, to utterly demean and dehumanize another person.
Others may use it as a term of endearment, but I’d rather just call my friends “Bud.”
I suppose, Mr. Sherman, that makes me a racist.