February 24, 2014

THOMAS | The Word That Shall Not Be Named

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I’m a user. It’s hard to admit, but I’ve been using it almost my entire life. I hurt myself every time. There are songs about it, there are articles about it and sometimes they even talk about it on T.V. It has taken me many years, but I think it might be just about time to rid it from my life.

The N-word. Let’s be honest, you knew this was coming. No columnist who writes about race can avoid this topic and still respect their work at the end of the day. I decided when I first became a columnist that I would stop using the word before I wrote anything about it. However, it has been quite a while and I cannot seem to give it up. Something about it is enticing. It feels great to be able to use a word that others cannot unless you authorize them to do so. The word seems to make songs sound better, jokes funnier and it can make an insult stand out further.

I recently read that the NFL is attempting to adopt a rule penalizing the N-word. This is obviously going to be a very controversial rule change, as any athlete knows that it is hard to control your language when things don’t go your way. These days, it’s even hard for fans to refrain from saying the word. Quite recently, Marcus Smart, a basketball player for Oklahoma State, was involved in an altercation with a fan over the alleged use of the word. In January, Madonna caused quite a bit of controversy after using the word to refer to her son in an Instagram post. She defended this, stating that the use of the word is all about intention, and that it did not indicate that she is racist. Nonetheless, the takeaway from all of these issues is that the word creates a discussion whenever it is used no matter the race of the user.

The problem with the N-word is not in its use. I devoutly believe that the problem lies in its current state of limbo.

It is used as a term of endearment, yet can also be an insult. The word can be said, but only by African-Americans. It was originally used to let black people know that they were less than human. However, today it is used with an “a” at the end, which somehow elicits a completely different meaning. I don’t know about you, but when I pronounce a word differently than it was intended I am not foolish enough to actually think it means something else. Changing the ending of the word is not nearly enough to distance it from its racist origins.

In my opinion, there are two ways in which the problem of the N-word can be solved. The first way being the obvious: If everybody stops saying it, it will eventually fade from our vocabulary. However, the reason why this method hasn’t been working is because the word is so definitively engraved in African-American vocabulary and culture. It would be nearly impossible to rid the world of the word. Which leads to our second option, which is to embrace the word and start allowing everybody to say it. It becomes nearly impossible to argue that it is no longer racist and is a term of endearment if non-black people are not allowed to use it. How is the word not racist if only one race is associated with it?

The problem with choosing the latter is actually being able to enforce it. I cannot simply call a symposium of all African-Americans to get together and decide to let everybody use the word. There isn’t a black listserv that I can e-mail blast to let everybody know that we are changing our stance on the N-word. There is no easy way to get such a large movement started. This is why the N-word is in this current state of limbo. We need those who have clout in popular culture to get the ball rolling. It is my earnest belief that if everyone is allowed to say the word, it will quickly become “no big deal.”

The N-word is out there, and the truth is that nearly everyone is saying it, whether in public or in private. If well-known celebrities are using the word on social media Currently, the word presents a problem that causes fights, proliferates racism and quite bluntly just pisses people off. Whether we decide to keep it and change its meaning, attempt to rid our vernacular of it forever, or if you think the current state of the word is acceptable, just remember that it’s not me, it’s you.