"The N Word"

By Charles Taylor

Published January 25, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

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An interesting and (dare I say it?) entertaining article about that weapons-grade epithet, and Randall Kennedy's book on same. Being a black American (and having survived the word a few times already in this life), I couldn't help wishing that Charles Taylor had made the biggest point about the true nature of the "evil" of the word: that there isn't (and can't be) an equivalent verbal dagger for whites. It's the asymmetry of the thing that makes it so potent.

-- Steven Augustine

My own children's book, "Buckaroo," published by Delacorte Press, has been quietly banned at my granddaughter's elementary school. I say quietly -- the librarian said that parents would raise a stink because the N word is used twice. In the book, the young protagonist, a white boy, hears the N word snarled, is appalled and knows it's a word that rolls on his tongue like a rotten raisin. Later, he himself uses the word in a fit of rage and is horrified because this thoughtless, stupid action hurts his new friend Ivy, a black girl. The story, set in 1958 Arkansas, opens with: "Preston Davis had never seen a colored girl up close." Preston (and I hope the reader) discovers that people are just people and that words hurt as badly as thrown stones. My question: How can children or adults learn valuable life lessons if they're not allowed to read about them?

-- Betty Traylor

It is awkward to comment on an essay about a book, but I think both are missing the point. I grew up in almost entirely white neighborhoods -- I'm a middle-class honky -- but in the lurch between lower-class and middle-class whites.

I had neighbors who were "white trash" and others who were upper middle class. I was as poor as the "white trash," but my parents held the cultural attitudes and behaviors of the upper middle class. There is a distinct difference in culture, beliefs, attitudes and behavior among the middle class.

My wife was a vice principal in an upper-middle-class public school where one student stood out like a sore thumb in misbehavior, mannerism, violence and attitudes. She found out that his parents had won the lottery and moved from a lower-class neighborhood to this upper-middle-class neighborhood.

Fundamentally, no one wants to concede a cultural difference between lower-class and middle-class whites, blacks or Hispanics, and for all I know, Asians and others. What I see the pilloried teacher (in the book) telling her class was that they were adopting lower-class behavior as a means of thwarting her inculcation of middle-class values. She implicitly utilized the word at issue to refer to lower-class values. I have been told by a middle-class black colleague that she grew up being taught that definition by her parents. I believe Chris Rock makes the same point.

Among whites there is no single term that encapsulates the meaning of "white trash" in the way the N-word does for blacks, but Jay Leno often refers to Tonya Harding as living in a trailer. Living in a trailer has become the white equivalent of the aspersion "white trash." The problem that I see for both the "trailer" and "N-word" aspersion is that there are people, in all races and ethnic groups, who are poor because of economic accidents rather than inculcated cultural values.

What we really need is a term that can be applied across races to apply to people who embody these lower-class values that I see among whites (Tonya Harding), blacks (the N word), Hispanics (some of my neighbors insisted they were "Spanish" rather than "Mexican") and others. It is a vacuum that keeps many derogatory terms for numerous ethnic and racial divisions in circulation.

There is such a thing as middle-class values, and it has an invigorating impact on the people who possess it. The frustration of many people, including the teacher whose students eventually stood up for her, is that publicly many people adopt behavior that is evocative of the lower class without recognizing that middle-class values represent protocols for participation in middle-class society.

We are witnessing in the bin Laden controversy this very dichotomy among Muslims: the Muslim "street" and the Arabic middle class. While people argue about "modernity" within that religion, they fail to see the dichotomy of middle-class values vs. lower-class values. Yet even if they did, we lack a suitable term for describing it.

The problem in discussing the N-word is that it perfectly describes an important dichotomy among American blacks, but at the same time reflects an unacceptable attribution of that aspersion to blacks in general. We need a more generic term, but first we have to recognize that we need it.

-- Mike Martin

Those who debate over the use of the word "nigger" by the teens and twentysomethings of the hour need to be aware of several key trends. Some of these are particular to this generation, and some have been staples in race relations for a long time, but few have been willing to admit them.

First of all, black entertainers and tastemakers must understand that anything they promote and make hip will be imitated by admiring white youths. This ranges from fashion to political causes to speech and behavior. While white kids wearing baggy pants and signing petitions to support Mumia may be innocuous to blacks, saying "nigger" is a different ball game.

Second, many, if not the majority, of young American whites have spent their childhoods in politically correct schools held in thrall to the well-known Holy Trinity of politically correct establishments: race, gender and class. They were regaled with horror stories of lynchings and fire hoses the way their parents were cautioned by tales of unwed mothers and debilitating sexually transmitted diseases. As their parents' unmentionable word was "fuck," the unsayable of today's young people is "nigger." In this context, gangster rappers become iconoclastic rebels; they taunt the poor, objectify women and say the ultimate outlaw word as they rap about racial stereotypes. Watching their idols on MTV, the most rebellious teens soon realize how to hit their well-intentioned teachers and parents where it hurts. And whites who have the guts to spit in the faces of PC bureaucrats receive even more adoration from young whites than gangster rappers. Quentin Tarantino, Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Eminem are all examples of this.

Third, the p.c. schools are so touchingly devoted to teaching/preaching their students not to be racist, sexist and so on that they have disastrously failed to convey to them the history behind the word "nigger," and, ultimately, the history of race relations in America without snippy moral admonishments. For many young whites, racism is a fact they concede for public appearances, but ultimately don't understand intellectually or emotionally. They may vaguely see that it causes pain to the blacks they know, but that is all they have been taught. Such appalling ignorance makes it possible for hip young whites to make jokes about crack whores with an innocence that may be completely incomprehensible to older or black observers. They can't understand that the youth are doing exactly what their fathers did when the latter grew his hair long like the Beatles: imitating a performer he admired, and sticking it to his parents' mores.

But saying "nigger" is far more revolutionary than any haircut could ever be. It penetrates current liberalism and political correctness down to the heart. It carries substantial risk of humiliation, suspension and loss of good opinion. After adults have toiled for decades trying to stabilize race relations in schools, that one word can tip over that house of cards. It can destroy friendships, disrupt business interests and plunge communities into turmoil. It is the ultimate weapon of the nihilist.

Fortunately, most young whites who say "nigger" lack such warped ideals. They are simply being rebellious and imitating their heroes. But it would be a profound mistake to assume that white youths say "nigger" the way older people do. To brand these kids as racists could easily push them into the eager arms of hate groups on the lookout for fresh meat. In fact, I wish the secular preachers and their ilk who've done so much damage to these young people would retire while they still have a scrap of credibility. But considering that they can shred an innocent public servant for using the word "niggardly," do you think they will hesitate to brand the children they and their values have raised as vicious racists and blame it all on evil white males?

-- Lillie Wade

By Letters to the Editor

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