McIlwain Commentary: “Taking the Sting out of the N-word”

The following opinion piece by Charlton McIlwain appeared in Newsday:

Whether you’re talking about Mark Twain, former Philadelphia television news anchorman Tom Burlington or former radio host Laura Schlesinger, the question of who can use the N-word is eminently controversial.

I’m African-American. My co-director at the research and policy website The Project on Race in Political Communication, Stephen Maynard Caliendo, is white. And when it comes to the N-word, we fundamentally disagree. It’s a debate we’re scheduled to air publicly this afternoon as part of Hofstra University’s Black History Month celebration.

Stephen chooses the safe position: White people should never use the N-word. He doesn’t believe, necessarily, that the word should never be used by anyone. White people should just neither use the term nor take part in any debate among people of color about its use. He asserts that white people reinforce the historical dominance they have exercised over black people by using the N-word.

I don’t disagree. Some people – folks like me, even – potentially lose when white folks throw around the N-word. But we should also ask ourselves a slightly different question: Do we have anything to lose by not permitting people to use the term?

I believe we do.

First, we lose one of our most effective means for stimulating conversations about race in a country that would still rather ignore, rather than confront, yesterday’s and today’s racial realities. Questioning, debating and learning are all necessary activities that civic-minded and engaged citizens participate in. Each of them is enhanced by controversy.

Controversy arouses passions. It forces us to stake out, define and defend our own positions and motivates us to, at least, know others’. Controversy fuels engagement.

Race and racial issues are socially and politically relevant. Given this, we cannot afford to eliminate such a powerful topic of conversation – one that continually pushes us to think about and discuss critically relevant issues about race, racism, and power.

But we lose something more significant if we banish the N-word to oblivion, whether through institutional policies or self-censorship. We lose our ability not only to change the meaning of the term, but to remove the powerful and painful sting associated with it.

I understand why folks in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation bristle when they hear the word. It often preceded or affected an act of violence in their day.

I understand why some of my racial peers squint when they read about someone like Burlington, who’s now engaged in a lawsuit over his firing after saying the word in a staff meeting, or Schlesinger, who gave up her radio show after an on-air N-word controversy. While these folks profess to have used the word with no intention to offend, it may be too difficult to accept that, because we’ve known so many others whose motivation to use the term was the same motivation that led them to deny someone like me a deserved opportunity.

But I also realize that the word’s meaning and its power to wound is different – even diminished – from my grandparents’ generation to mine, and to the generation behind me. The very fact that today’s teens toss the term around in such a casual and playful manner in evidence enough. That some black youngsters take no offense when their Latino, Asian or even white friends use the word further underscores this point, as does the fact that they embrace white hip-hop artists who use it in their music.

The reason the term doesn’t affect some younger black people and others as it once did resulted from people – blacks, other people of color and whites – engaging the term in different ways. Yes, some deployed it with the explicit intent to do harm. But others have used it in creative ways with helpful, not malevolent, intentions. Carl Sandburg’s poem, which takes the word as its title, and comedian Chris Rock’s rant about “Black people vs. —,” are two examples of using the term in ways understood not to offend, but to question the word’s historic meaning.

If we truly want the N-word to become a non-issue – whether to die out or flourish without the ability to offend – we must accept this position: There are legitimate social, professional and political grounds for people – even white people – to use the term. Altering its meaning, combating the chilling effects of racial censorship and promoting reasoned dialogue on acceptably contested public issues – these are just a few of them.

McIlwain is an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University and co-director of The Project on Race in  Political Communication.

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