When news broke that President Obama used the n-word during the podcast interview “WTF with Marc Maron” about America’s racial history, it caused shock waves. We are shocked because we are all confused as to when — if ever — there is an appropriate context to use the word.
On CNN, legal analyst Sunny Hostin said that Obama’s use of the word was inappropriate because of his office, and given the history of the word itself. New York Times columnist Charles Blow countered Hostin’s assertion, pointing out that Obama used the word correctly: as a teaching moment.
The confusion illustrates what happens when an epithet like the n-word, once hurled at African-Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society.
Many African-Americans, and not just the hip-hop generation, say that reclaiming the n-word serves as an act of group agency and as a form of resistance against the dominate 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 use the n-word with each other yet it is considered racist for others outside the race to use it unquestionably sets up a double standard. And because language is a public enterprise, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is an absurdly narrow argument. The fact that African-Americans have appropriated the n-word does not negate our long history of self-hatred.
Unfortunately, controversies seem to erupt regularly into public view. In July 2008, the Rev. Jesse Jackson used the n-word to refer to Obama. Although Jackson and a cadre of African-American leaders conducted a mock funeral in 2007 for the n-word at the NAACP convention in Detroit, the fact that it slipped so approvingly from his mouth illustrates its lingering power.
In January 2011, the kerfuffle concerning the n-word focused on Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known as Mark Twain, in the NewSouth Books edition of his 1885 classic, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In the original edition of the book, the epithet is used 219 times. In a combined effort to rekindle interest in this Twain classic and to tamp down the flame and fury the use of the n-word engenders, Alan Gribben — editor of the NewSouth Edition, and an English professor at Auburn University in Alabama — replaced the n-word with the word “slave.”
In short, the n-word is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language used to disparage African-Americans. Our culture’s neorevisionist use of the n-word makes it even harder to purge the sting of the word from the American psyche.
Because language is a representation of culture. Language reinscribes and perpetuates ideas and assumptions about race, gender, and sexual orientation that we consciously and unconsciously articulate in our everyday conversations about ourselves and the rest of the world, and consequently transmit generationally.
Too many of us keep the n-word alive. It also allows Americans to become numb to the use and abuse of the power this racial epithet still wields, thwarting the daily struggle that many of us undertake to try to ameliorate race relations.
In the end, Obama used the n-word appropriately, as an illustration that racism is very much alive.