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The Enduring Controversies  of the N-Word The Enduring Controversies  of the N-Word
The Enduring Controversies  of the N-Word

Hearing the N-word uttered in popular media is familiar in the United States. It is embedded in hip hop parlance and appears in an increasingly influential collection of movies about American slavery.

 

Talk show host and comedian Bill Maher recently used the word in a joking fashion during his June 2, 2017, interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. Promoting his new book, Sasse encouraged Maher, a city-dwelling coastal California liberal, to come “work in the fields” in Nebraska. Maher responded, laughingly, that he was a “house nigga”, suggesting he was ill suited to do field work. It was a poorly judged comment on the historical divisions between house slaves and field slaves during American slavery.

 

Twitter erupted and, as the new court of public opinion, it registered an overall condemnation of Maher’s statement, of his audience for laughing at the joke, and of Sasse for remaining silent in the moment.

 

The N-word’s continued presence in popular media prompts one to consider a variety of questions. Is the so-called “hip-hop generation” unique in claiming to have reinvented the term, or were there preceding moments in African-American history when Black people had already “reclaimed” the word? Is using the N-word simply an American issue in the age of globalized media? Are non-Black people of color exempted from the ban? How should the word be discussed in an educational setting?

 

My students in Orange County, California deal with such questions in the classroom. Every semester I organize a group assignment that engages the N-word through several perspectives. Students analyze the N-word from various intellectual vantage points, including issues surrounding censorship, “word-policing,” transnational connotations, reclamation, and under what context the word can/should be used.

 

The group structure encourages students to engage with one another, broaden their individual perspectives, and overturn assumptions that they harbored prior to the project. Many students admit they had never considered these questions before and rarely looked beyond slavery and hip-hop for additional frames of reference. Some change their minds and discontinue using the word after the project. Others don’t. Both outcomes are acceptable.

 

The point of the assignment is not to indoctrinate students, or to assume there is only one correct answer. It helps them to think critically about the word after accumulating scholarly information. Viewing the N-word as a subject for intellectual inquiry might prevent future gaffes, or at the very least provide ways in which audiences can scrutinize them through informed opinions.

 

Maher’s use of the word will not be the last time it is uttered, but it can, and should, encourage us to reflect on its past, present, and future in the English language and how this continued usage might impact the word’s national and global expansion.

 

The word is not going anywhere, and we can no longer assume the current status quo is sufficient for addressing these perpetual controversies.

 

By Tyler Parry
This is an abriged version. The full text can be found at Black Perspectives website. (http://www.aaihs.org/the-enduring-controversies-of-the-n-word/). We thank them for kindly allowing us to reproduce it.