Why I Can’t Say “The N-Word”

It’s always unfortunate when a valiant effort is undone by a single lasting image that can’t be shaken and that sort of ruins everything. For CNN right now, that image is the one that got a hefty amount of circulation around social media circles yesterday, a moment almost unbearable in its unintended comedy as a group of talking heads faced off while below them a chyron banner asked the ridiculous question “N Word vs. ‘Cracker’: Which Is Worse?” The debate happened during the otherwise admirable special titled simply “The N Word,” in which host Don Lemon had guests debate the use of racial slurs in modern America and asked what’s tolerable, what isn’t, and in what context the intolerable might actually be tolerable. It was precisely the kind of important, nuanced cultural discussion that shouldn’t under any circumstances have fallen victim to the standard cable news rush toward reductivism, but, well, there you have it: turning a debate over racial slurs into a kind of game show, with the inevitable winner of the “which word is worse” contest being — oh, I don’t know — the one you’re not even willing to say.

No matter how hard I try, I’m doomed to repeat myself at least a little bit when it comes to the subject of racial epithets and offensive language in general and the use of both in statements devoid of emotion or accusation, simply because I’ve written about this a couple of times before. I’m also well aware that a white guy who decides to try to talk openly and honestly about his thoughts on the mere utterance of horrific language that’s been used throughout history to subjugate and demean those who don’t look like him is stepping out onto a hell of a ledge, so I’ll try to be cautious. The fact is, though, that it comes down to this: there’s a difference between saying a word and using a word. And in the discussion of language, especially if you’re a journalist, you have to be free to speak almost any word without it being misconstrued as an actual attack. Put simply: If you’re talking about the word “nigger” — not calling somebody that — then for God’s sake say the word “nigger.”

Much to his credit, Don Lemon, the host of last night’s CNN special, is an incredibly powerful voice for the necessity of not holding back when it comes to the use of provocative, even offensive language in news reports and public discussion. His view, and I couldn’t agree with him more, is a little like that of Louie CK, which is that being unwilling to actually come out and say an offensive word — instead resorting to childish euphemisms — is nothing more than a cheat, a dodge designed to put the onus on the person hearing the term to construct the ugly reality in his or her mind. It defangs what’s being discussed. And not only does that do no one — certainly not our culture at large — any good, it’s frankly chicken-shit.

Obviously, while many of us tend to self-censor and sanitize when it comes to offensive language, journalists in particular, there’s a difference between simply saying a word that some find obscene and saying one that’s been used by an entire culture to dehumanize another. Choosing to give up the silly phrase “the F-Bomb” in favor of saying “fuck” will probably irritate a few delicate sensibilities, but coming out and saying “nigger” instead of “the N-word” when simply discussing the word itself or reporting on its usage by someone besides yourself is truly treading on thin ice. The question is, why? I understand the need for intentions not being misconstrued and certainly for not feeding the fires of despicable racists who truly are looking for inadvertent permission to say what’s really on their minds, but isn’t it clear when a journalist is reporting on language that he or she isn’t personally directing that language at someone? There’s a vast difference between debate and dehumanization.

Really, no matter the word “nigger”‘s horrific power to offend and instigate, is there anything more painfully ridiculous than a grown man or woman being reduced to sounding like a seven-year-old in an effort to avoid even speaking it outright? Saying “the N-word” is nothing more than an absurd verbal tip-toe and one that seems to prove not only that there’s no safe context in which the actual word can be spoken, but also that there exists a silent implication that those whom one would rightly expect to be very personally offended by the use of such a word are so clueless and easily enraged that they can’t discern between the desire to bully and oppress and the need to openly discuss, and therefore should be protected from hearing the word altogether — for the good of everyone. This latter possibility — an indictment of an entire culture, whether out of condescension or outright fear — feels infinitely more offensive to me than the utterance of any one word.

I may as well go ahead and make something clear here: I’m not looking for an excuse to say a “forbidden” word. I don’t spend my day walking around being frustrated that the one thing somebody has asked me not to do as a white guy is an insurmountable personal crisis. But my lack of need to use a racial slur in polite conversation is actually equaled and maybe even trumped by my need not to say something that makes me sound like a scared child if the subject arises. I simply can’t bring myself to say “the N-word” — or for that matter “the F-word” or “the C-word” — because I’m 43-years-old and not four. When talking about a word itself, I’m going to say that word. My intent is of course not to hurt or offend — and I would hope that’s understood.

Why would it be? Because we’re all adults here. And we shouldn’t be talking like little kids in the name of protecting ourselves from language that scares us and the sometimes ugly cultural reality it reveals.