The N Word

9 May

Last week, as you know, Larry Wilmore’s used the ‘N word’ at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. It’s been on my mind.

Personally, I think the use of the ‘N word’ should not be used by anyone who isn’t Black. And then, its use needs to be carefully weighed before proceeding: what’s the context, who is using it, towards whom, and who else is there?

Due to part of its history (the negative part), the ‘N word’ is a reclaimed word. This means that Black culture (specifically African American culture) has taken it, and changed it by dropping the ‘-er’ and replacing it with an ‘-a’, and uses it in a positive way within the group. But like other reclaimed words (queer, for example) not all Black people like it. And you need to read your audience.

The ‘N word’ is racially charged. That is its own reason for exercising caution in any setting. As a biracial woman, I’m not even sure I like to hear it in Black groups. But I don’t think it should be used in a racially mixed group – and definitely not a predominantly white group like the White House Correspondents’ dinner. The crowd was already uncomfortable with the racial references.

Here’s the problem, as I see it: hearing it used may give non-Black people the impression that it’s ok to use it. It’s not. Even in a story recounting how someone else said it, if you’re not Black, it’s definitely not ok to use the ‘N word’. In addition, when used in mixed company, it may (even worse) give people who don’t get the impact of the word, the reality of systemic racism, or the reclamation piece the impression that it’s ok to use it.

Reclaimed words are only to be used by the people they were originally intended to hurt, as a way to take the sting out of hearing it. But even in those groups, there are some that don’t appreciate their use.

Which brings us to age and history: Likely it is people of a certain age that don’t buy in to reclamation of words because they remember all too well the hurt of having that word hurled at them in hatred. The youth of today may not have the same history with the ‘N word’; they hear it in Hip Hop lyrics and as a term of endearment from friends (with the a ending). Similarly, as a member of the LGBTQ communities, I use the word queer (also a reclaimed word). I likewise don’t have a negative history with the word queer, which (like the ‘N word’ for Black people of a certain age) is a word that many older LGBTQ people will not use.

Look, we need solidarity. In a world where racism is systemic, it’s nice to have moments of connection. Larry Wilmore acknowledging that special place in his heart for President Obama felt authentic and heartfelt – and I thought it was great to see in a public space. But his use of the ‘N word’ made my jaw drop, given the company.

On the other hand, I applaud the way he infused some Black culture into a very white space. A little disruptive. A little uncomfortable. And that’s how we learn: by being uncomfortable and examining it; by having conversations out loud and in public that we usually only have in private -so people can engage with the topic, the questions, and the discomfort. Controversy allows us to examine issues, ideas, perspectives, and ultimately to get to know each other better.

And any time we get to have conversations about racism and systemic racism, we move the needle of inclusion a little further. So thank you Larry Wilmore!

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Copyright 2016 Annemarie Shrouder
Speaker, Facilitator, and Consultant on issues of Diversity & Inclusion

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