John McWhorter, the Columbia University English professor who came to national prominence by asking what the point of African-American Studies was a few years ago, wrote in Time on Monday that the president's use of the word "n*gger" on Marc Maron's "WTF" podcast should embolden whites to use the word too -- but only so long as they do so in the same analytical context as Obama did.
He described the taboo against using the word "even to discuss it" as "a fake, ticklish nicety that seems almost designed to create misunderstandings," and applauded the president for using it in his discussion of racism in America -- even if McWhorter himself believes such discussions often portray "blacks as eternal victims of racism."
"In a thoroughly enlightened 1990s journalistic culture," he wrote, "one could still say the whole word when talking about it." But now, the only place he feels like he can safely do so is in his classes when he wants "the rhetorical clarity of the word itself rather than a coy euphemism."
He argued that "it seems a little arbitrary that I am allowed to say it just because I'm black," and when he tells his students that, "we all laugh a little and move on." As someone who has taught courses on race and American literature that featured Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and William Faulkner's "Light in August" on the syllabus, I'm actually struck by how sheepish McWhorter's remarks are, given that the point of his article is that everyone should be free to use the word in a critical context.
It would not merely be difficult, for example, to teach Faulkner's novel about Joe Christmas, a man of dubious ancestry who passes for both white and black depending on the circumstances, without having a frank discussion about the appropriate usage of the word "n*gger" -- it would be impossible.
That aside, McWhorter is correct to note that Obama didn't call someone a "n*gger" -- as it "has for decades been Civility 101 in American society that one does not do that without severe sanction" -- and that "referring to the word is not the same as using it."