On “Burying� The N-Word

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I certainly agree with the NAACP that some folks use the N-word far too freely, and we need to educate people about the word, and the history of humiliation and violence that has been associated with it.

[Commentary]

When the NAACP conducted a “funeral” for the N-word at its annual convention in my hometown of Detroit, I went through successive waves of emotions.

I was amused, saddened and finally, agitated.

First, I was amused because this was another unpredictable manifestation of Black folks’ irrepressible creativity.  My amusement ended when I remembered that some time ago, the civil rights organization had to “temporarily” close offices around the country, which saddened me that a historically vital organization had been reduced to meaningless symbolism. And dare I say it – this “burial” of the NAACP is unlikely to change anyone’s behavior.

With that said, I became agitated at the act of the burial, that if effective, is actually counter-productive to the goal -- which is, namely to help white, Black, and other folks talk about and address the myriad racial problems that persist in this country.

As a dialogue expert with a specialty in race relations, I am always on the lookout for hot topics that facilitate the hard conversations that need to happen. Getting rid of  -- or should I say, “burying” the N-word -- would eliminate a useful entryway into some important conversations that we as Americans still desperately need to have.

In many different ways, the N-word serves as an important reminder of the remaining work we must do to create a racially-just and reconciled society. Used sparingly, the persistence of the N-word in our collective culture can help us stay mindful of some of the important issues we need to remember if we ever are to create a fully inclusive society.

Thanks to the civil rights movement and the general decrease in overt racial bigotry among white folks, non-Blacks rarely throw that word around at Black folks like they did 50 years ago. Everyone knows that if someone else --  other than a Black person  -- uses the term, especially to the face of an African-American, then the N-word is considered “fighting words.”

But interestingly, the word still can emerge from a self-professed, non-prejudiced white person’s mouth when they are upset, disappointed about losing “his or her” opportunity to a Black person, or in stressful circumstances. We all remember the flap from last fall regarding the use of the N- word by Seinfield’s Michael Richards.

As a person who facilitates dialogue about race relations, I have heard countless white people discuss their struggle about what to do when others use the term “nigger.”  (By the way, who and when was it decided that it should be referred to as “the N-word?”)  From a racial reconciliation standpoint, this struggle among white folks about what to do when this word “slips out” is very useful!

In a world where people – especially white folks -  are in massive collective denial about the fact that racism and unconscious prejudice still exist among otherwise well-intentioned people, having this word around as a “taboo-release valve” is a reminder of the work that white folks still need to do on themselves.

And among Black folks, the N-word can remind us of work we need to do on each other, but in a very different way.
Remember Chris Rock’s famous routine a few years ago with the refrain: “I love Black people, but I hate niggers.” This is the way my southern relatives often used this word – as a shorthand to represent a variety of behaviors that Black folks do that are self-sabotaging and socially destructive.

Black folks need to talk about anti-intellectualism, irresponsibility, excessive violence, and lack of personal initiative among our brothers and sisters, and simultaneously hold society’s feet to the fire for the widespread institutional racism, community disinvestment, chronic deprivation, and so on.
 
For  my late grandmother, Chris Rock, and tens of millions of other Black folks, “nigger” – phonetically “nigga” – can efficiently bring up behaviors of ours that we desperately need to talk about.

Now, for those of you how are wondering: “How can we be angry at white folks for using a word if we use it?”  To me, this is as simple-minded as a recent Supreme Court decision, which says using racial categories to promote integration and equality is the moral equivalent of using racial categories to promote segregation and racial disparities. Yes, the history creates an unfair double standard. And talking about that double standard is the perfect time to talk about racialized-double standards, generally.

Sadly, given the scientifically-validated, pervasive level of discrimination or disparity faced by Blacks in the domains of housing, employment, the judicial system, health care, income, and family wealth; simply put, racial double standards are pervasive and a fact of life. 
If we are paying attention, this “unfair” double standard in language can be a useful for other conversations we need to have about other inequities. And interestingly enough, we might decide that these others issues matter just a little bit more.
I certainly agree with the NAACP that some folks use the N-word far too freely, and we need to educate people about the word, and the history of humiliation and violence that has been associated with it.

Like fire, sharp knives, or other tools, the N-word is to be used sparingly and responsibly, as my grandma did. To “bury” a word seems silly and a bit old school in this Internet age. However, if this silly symbolic act can be turned into an authentic dialogue about race-related issues within and between communities, then this “funeral” can turn into something more useful.


Dr. David Campt is a dialogue coach and a nationally-recognized expert on race relations. He is the author of the upcoming book, “The Little Book of Dialogue on Difficult Subjects.”  He has been a visiting scholar at University of California, Berkeley, teaching a course in American Cultures. Visit
www.davidcampt.com


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