• author
    • Kelvin Wade

      Columnist
    • June 26, 2013 in Columnists

    Nigger

    I really don’t like saying “the n-word.” No, I don’t mean saying “nigger.” I mean using the euphemism, “the n-word.” That’s something I would expect a child who is not allowed to use profanity to say. But in our culture in 2013, we can’t even utter the word in a non-derogatory context. We can’t talk or write about the word “nigger” unless we cloak it as “the n-word” or all hell will break loose.

    The genesis for this column came from an email conversation with a friend inspired by the recent Paula Deen racial slur dust up. My friend, an older white gentleman, asked me about the inability to even use the word “nigger” in a non-racist context. The Prejudice Police will come down quickly on violators who don’t say “the n-word” or “a racial slur.”

    Somehow the word itself is so inflammatory that its mere utterance offends. Beyond that, words that sound like the word often provoke the same feeling in some people. There was the infamous 1999 incident when a white Washington D.C. mayoral aide, David Howard, used the word “niggardly” in a meeting. A black colleague was offended and Howard resigned. Now “nigger” and “niggardly” don’t share the same etymology and have nothing to do with each other. Yet this word has caused problems in several incidents since the Howard case. Such is the power of even sounding like the word.

    “Let’s talk about the word ‘nigger,'” is different from “Let’s talk about the word, nigger.” Context matters. Or I should say context should matter.

    It was perfectly normal when my 10th grade short story teacher read aloud Thomas Wolfe’s “The Child by Tiger” which uses the words “nigger” and “Niggertown.” No student objected to the words because they were the words in the story. I dare a teacher to read that story aloud today to their class. They’ll end up on CNN.

    When I wrote about this in my newspaper column two years ago, my editor, of course, changed “nigger” to “n—–.” Now everyone knows what those dashes represent, but somehow people aren’t offended by seeing the dashes. Those five dashes protect us somehow from the absolute soul-crushing horror of seeing the five letters. Why?

    The fear of seeing this word in print led Auburn University professor Alan Gribben to reedit Mark Twain’s classic Huck Finn and change the word “nigger” to “slave.” He felt by getting rid of the word more kids would read the book and teachers, fearful of the word, would assign the book more often. Now he’s probably right about that. People are afraid of the word in any context these days.

    Here’s a thought: How about teaching kids about context? How about teaching students about the America the book represents? Is that too complex?

    Years ago, my then 11 year old granddaughter Lauryn came to me upset after school because a girl had said something mean to her. I asked what the girl said. Lauryn said she wasn’t allowed to say or she’d get in trouble. I told her she could tell me and she said, “The girl said, ‘I’m going to kick your ass, bitch.'” I dealt with the problem, but I also wanted Lauryn to see that merely telling me what someone else said wasn’t the same as her using profanity on the playground. Now she could’ve said “a word” and “b word” because I expect that from a child. I expect adults to be able to handle any word in the English language without falling apart.

     Do I want more use of the word? Do I think racial slurs should be casually slung about in public? No, I don’t. But when we talk about the word, how come we can’t say it or spell it out? Is just uttering the word in a non-derogatory non-racist context the same as an avowed racist calling a black person a nigger? By banishing the word completely, regardless of context, it seems that’s what we’re saying.

    And we’re seeing the same ban erasing other objectionable words. Fag, queer, retard etc… I’ve already heard “the r word” used for “retard.” Again, if I use the word to talk about the word, am I a bully and bigot?

    Now I know nigger is one of the most offensive words in the English language. It causes people anxiety hearing it or seeing it because we’ve packed so much shameful history, ugly incidents and bad memories into that word. Whites fear it because they know that to even approach the word in a non-derogatory context could land them in hot water by someone who misunderstands. It’s a loaded word.

    But there are other loaded words that are sometimes given a pass. Earlier this year after the Boston Marathon bombing, David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox told a live crowd and TV audience “This is our fucking city and nobody is going to dictate our freedom.” The crowd cheered and the FCC commissioner tweeted “David Ortiz spoke from the heart at today’s Red Sox game. I stand with Big Papi and the people of Boston.”

    There was no outcry. No one lamenting the corruption of our children’s ears. No calls for Ortiz to be fined or fired. Even people who would normally be offended by profanity understood the context.

    So why can’t I publish the word nigger in the context of a column about the word? Does context no longer matter? I don’t have all the answers. And I’m uneasy about the word myself. Still, I don’t like the idea of a word that’s off limits and the only way it can be discussed is to turn into 6 year olds and mention the first letter of the word.

    And while the word cannot be printed in most newspapers or used in a television newscast, we have half of blacks using its etymological cousin, “nigga,” and many rap songs using the word like a lyrical drum beat. Such is the minefield of a word that’s loaded like a freight train.

    Now you’ve read this column and, no doubt, some are probably offended just seeing the word. But if you’re honest with yourself you have to admit that thunder didn’t roll, lightning didn’t flash and the heavens didn’t fall. No one’s eyes caught flame and I doubt anyone reading this is now in need of psychiatric care. My goal in writing it is just to make people think.

    As a followup, I’d encourage any and everyone to read Randall Kennedy’s fascinating book, “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.” Will you have the nerve to go to the library or bookstore and ask for it aloud?



    • I saw this and immediately didn’t want my grandson sitting next to me to see the word. He knows it as awful and would have asked a million questions about you and why you wrote it. I would rather let him think it is an awful word used by racists. But I am in agreement with your right to write about it and I respect what you say about context. But I would never use it in any context.



    • Context matters.


      • Kelvin

      • June 26, 2013 at 12:42 pm
      • Reply

      I realize many people are going to not even want to read the column once they see that word because they’re not used to seeing it in print. Originally I was going to put this on my blog because I thought It might be too controversial for iPinion. I also was going to title it something else but I kept thinking if I use “n-word” in the title of this column it’s a betrayal of what the column is about.

      Only now I think once it’s shared on Facebook it’s going to get flagged by people who won’t take the time to read it. I had qualms about writing this for sure. But in the end, it didn’t take nearly the balls to write this as it would’ve if I were white. Think about that and it makes my point that we can’t even talk about the word.


      • Terri Connett

      • June 26, 2013 at 6:49 pm
      • Reply

      I’m so glad you had the guts to write this column. The title took my breath away but your story made a lot of sense. And without the title the way you have it, you would have sold out. I agree with everything you said about using the word in conversation as opposed to calling someone this most offensive word. But I do not have the balls to use it. I’m white and I don’t actually have balls.



    • I’m glad to announce that I never hear the word unless it’s on the radio, TV, or when it crosses the lips of our AA youth. I truly believe that white America finds the word disgusting.


      • Carolyn Wyler

      • June 27, 2013 at 7:53 am
      • Reply

      Context does matter. That and I think it’s probably more acceptable for a column like this to be written by a black american rather than a white one. I hate the word nigger and even as I type it it does cause a lot of anxiety. My dad taught me years ago when I was just a small child living in Illinois that was an inappropriate word and to love and accept everyone equally. Thanks Kelvin.


        • Kelvin

        • June 27, 2013 at 10:08 am
        • Reply

        Thank you. It was anxiety provoking to decide to submit the column. But I didn’t want it to be something I just shelved because I thought it was important. The friend who inspired this is an older white gentleman, a man who I respect and admire (Vietnam veteran, techno geek like me and he volunteers his time) and even he was reluctant to use the word to talk to me about the word. He was concerned I’d take offense and that just shouldn’t be. So I had to run it.



    • Words considered rude may be used in two contexts: as simple profanity, swearing, where their actual meaning is irrelevant; and with a clear meaning. The same words can often be used in both senses: “Shit, I’ve stepped in dog-shit”.



    • Romantic? In some contexts, “romantic” might have meant they read Keats and Shelley to each other or played soft music during dinner while candles flickered. But that’s not what the writer was trying to convey. “Romantic” has become one of the words we use in place of “sexual” because we remain nervous about a subject that everybody decided, 30-some years ago, not to be nervous about any more.



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