The Trouble with ‘the N-word’



By Tom Robotham


Let’s talk about the word “nigger.” It’s been in the news, after all, ever since a Newport News history teacher was suspended late last month for saying it in class.

In case you missed the story, the teacher was trying to explain why some people are offended by the name the Washington Redskins. When students couldn’t understand, she asked how they would feel if their school decided to name its team the Newport News Niggers.

It was an excellent analogy, and many people have come to her defense. But the manner in which the discussion has unfolded, even among her supporters—or perhaps, especially among her supporters—underscores the problem with our national discourse about race.

A recent episode of HearSay, the lunchtime talk show on WHRV-FM (89.5), is a case in point. Most of the callers said they supported the teacher. But while offering their comments, they went out of their way to avoid uttering the word themselves. Perhaps the best comment on the show came from a woman who lives on an Indian reservation. It was noteworthy, she said, that people were so offended by the teacher’s remark, but seemed to have no problem with saying the word, “Redskins,” out loud.

It’s worth pausing, for a moment, to consider this. Why don’t we say, “the R-word”? Why are we so comfortable with a derogatory name for people who suffered genocide?

And yet, even as she was making this remark, she could not bring herself to say the word, “nigger.”

The print media, too, have assiduously avoided spelling out the word in their coverage of this story. Instead, they have reported that she “used a racial epithet” or, “the N-word.”

What’s wrong with that, you might ask. Aren’t they just being sensitive? I’m sure that’s their intent. But their tiptoeing around the word reflects our country’s tendency to tiptoe around the problem of race relations. We are afraid to have an honest discussion about race in this country for fear of offending someone. Instead, we hear, see and read in the mainstream media, “conversations” about race that barely scratch the surface.

As the great comedian and social commentator Lenny Bruce suggested many decades ago, when we shrink from words like “nigger,” we simply give them more power.

It’s a shame because in my experience as a writer and teacher, young black people generally find frank discussions about the word to be very refreshing. Let me give you two examples.

About a decade ago, I published an essay called “Scenes from a White Boy’s Life,” in which I chronicled my struggles as a child and teenager to come to terms with racial tensions. In the course of the essay, I spelled out the word “nigger” once or twice because I’d heard it so often when I was growing up. I also admitted that while my father believed that racism was wrong, I had my doubts at one point after being forced to attend a racially integrated high school (this was at the beginning of the court-ordered busing experiments in the 1970s) and getting punched on the first day by a big black kid, simply because I was white. Fortunately, my father’s sensibilities prevailed, and I continued to think deeply about the phenomenon of racial prejudice. I concluded the essay with a recollection of reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time—the best book ever published on the subject. My initial thought after finishing the book was, “I finally understand what it’s like to black in America.” But I concluded the essay with an acknowledgment that I did not understand—and never would, because I am white. All I can do is to continue to try.

A few days after the essay was published I got a call from a high school teacher in Hampton. He told me right off the bat that he was black. He said that he’d read my essay and had assigned it to his students—most of whom were also black.

“They loved it,” he said. “They remarked that they’d never heard a white person speak so honestly about race.” He asked me to come speak to the class, and I did. It was one of the most gratifying moments of my career as a journalist.

About five years later, after I’d started teaching freshman composition at Old Dominion University, I assigned to my students an essay by Gloria Naylor, called, “Mommy, What Does ‘Nigger’ Mean?”

The ensuing discussion was initially awkward. Many of the students had never heard the word uttered in a classroom before. But within a few minutes, most of them had become thoroughly engaged and animated. Before the start of the following class, one of the students—a young black woman—came up to me and said it had been the topic of conversation at the family dinner table the night before, with her parents, grandparents and siblings. Moreover, she told me that she wanted to write her final paper about it.

I have said the word aloud in other classes as well—especially after assigning Huckleberry Finn. Twain used the word ‘nigger” 219 times in the book, and periodically its pervasiveness in the novel has led modern readers to call it “racist.” Such comments are a reflection of gross ignorance. Huck Finn, in fact, is a pioneering book of enlightenment on the subject of race, given that Jim, the runaway slave, is the wisest and most thoughtful character in the story. Prior to that, no work of American literature had ever depicted a black person as fully human. Nevertheless, some people still clamor for its removal from school reading lists. Or worse, they demand that it be edited it to remove the offending word. I find this to be deeply offensive. Spelling out the word ‘nigger’ in Huck’s dialogue is essential, not only because it was commonly used in the time and place in which the story is set, but because it reinforces Huck’s innocence—like all children, he uses words without full understanding.

Don’t get me wrong: In none of these instances have I used the word cavalierly. I’ve seen racism at its worst. When I was a teenager, my friend Charlie—the only black kid in my neighborhood—was hunted down by a bunch of grown men, including some off-duty cops, beaten and hurled for good measure through the plate glass window of a local deli for an act of vandalism that he didn’t commit. Around the same time, in a nearby neighborhood, a group of men burned a house to the ground after learning that a black family had purchased it. And on a day-to-day basis, I heard the word ‘nigger’ uttered with venom, along with, “They’re fuckin’ animals,” and other such sentiments.

I’ve also confronted the word and everything that it represents in my scholarly work—my master’s thesis was about lynching. The hideousness of racism in our country is something that I’ve thought about long and hard, and I continue to do so. This has led to a fervent belief that the more we shy away from uttering the word ‘nigger’ in discussion about racism, the more we fuel the problem. Racism is a cultural infestation in our country, and avoiding the word is akin to discovering a roach problem in your kitchen at midnight, then turning off the light and hoping it will go away. After all, it’s too ugly, right?

No! Shine a fucking light on it. “NIGGER”! It is a powerful word, owing to the fact that it has been used by lynch mobs and other people who are so desperate for scapegoats whom they can blame for their own frustrations that they are willing to sacrifice their own humanity in the process.

In light of this history, I understand people’s reluctance to say, or spell out the word. But we need to get over that. In discussions about racism, avoidance of the word ‘nigger’ is nothing but intellectual cowardice. In essence, it suggests that we are so immature, as individuals and as a society, that we cannot confront ugly truths—and that if we stop uttering the word, it will die out. Nothing could be more naïve.


Tom Robotham is an author of numerous books and is currently an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University. He lives in Norfolk.


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