The N Word

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Conversations about the N-word can be tiresome. Should we say it? Can White people say it? Will it always have hurtful connotations attached to it? Is it really a term of endearment? Can it ever be completely reclaimed? The endless stream of questions go on and on.

Recently, there has been debate over whether the N-word should be said on the new and successful television show, Empire. There are those who think it should be used and there are those who think it should never be used on television – both camps filled with actors and actresses in the show, as well as fans of the show.

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I have been watching Empire with a critical eye, as I often do when I watch television. The scholar in me finds many things problematic in the show. It is a Black-centered show, but that does not absolve it from criticism. The creative in me thinks it is brilliant and it has captured the attention of several American audiences for a variety of reasons, including addressing important social conversations. And so we address yet another social conversation: What exactly are we to do with the N-word in television and beyond?

When it comes to the N-word and its use, I think we often go wrong by attempting to explain it only in its current or modern-day applications with vague references to the past. The word cannot be removed in its entirety, I think, from the shame and pain of the Black experience in the American context. That said, words change over time – all words change over time. And there is an argument to be made for re-imagining the word, or “taking back the word,” as people often have, and do. Still, I think the speaker of the word always matters as much as the context in which the word is used.

I am not a big fan of White people using the word, regardless of what Black people choose to do with it in their lives and communities. Of course Chris Rock makes an important point in a skit where he says the response to, “Can White people use or say the N word?” is “Not really,” when we consider the consumption of Black music by a White public.

Like Chris Rock, I often find it sad, and also pretentious when (White) people do not sing the lyrics when that word is used in song. Not only because there is a tendency to do so only when Black people are around, but also because within the context of repeating the words of a song, there is no rhetorical violence committed against Black people in that particular context, generally speaking.

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Rhetorical violence is what I am most concerned with when we talk about the use of the N-word. And what is rhetorical violence in language? It is communicating the dehumanization of others through how we talk about them. So for me, the N-word will always be complicated because it is largely dependent on every particular context, even if we were to put subjective opinions aside. And while the pain of the word is often attached to White speakers or non-Black speakers, I think there are incidents and patterns that allow for Black people to use that word violently against other Black people too.

So, should it be used on Empire? This isn’t a black and white issue, no pun intended. But I am interested in how the word will be used. Will it be showcasing the complexity of the word, showing how it can be both violent and a term of endearment? Will it give us nuance reasons to understand how the word can be transformed or transforms language and culture? Will it represent members of culture who use that word in everyday vocabulary? Or will it be just another thing to do for shock-value?

I am open to the idea, but I am not open to the idea without there being a point to it. Otherwise there will be yet another tired, half-heated conversation about the N-word in place after such use. If it’s going to be used on television, give us something new to talk about.

What do you think?

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