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The last word on the 'N' word

The past, present, future and cultural consequences of America's most infamous racial slur


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Oyewole's riff on N.W.A. highlights the generational conflict over how the word is used. Major shifts in the post-industrial economy created the socio-economic and political conditions that gave birth to hip-hop culture. Young black and brown people used rap music, breakdancing, turntablism, graffiti art and fashion to express themselves, creating a cultural identity that set them apart from everyone, including their elders -- many of whom do not see themselves reflected in this generation. Many young black and brown people use the "N" word judiciously and as a term of endearment, even with their non-black friends. Having become the most influential cultural movement in the last 30 years, hip-hop culture is embraced by youth worldwide. But post-rebellion, post-soul 30-somethings growing up with hip-hop culture experience it differently than new millennials who are coming up with it now. Black culture has always represented what it means to be "cool" in American society and hip-hop culture is one of the spaces in which anyone can become "cool," theoretically. Norman Mailer's essay The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the White Hipster discussed the superficial appropriation of black culture by whites in order to obtain a "cool" identity, despite the privilege of being white, particularly in this country during the 1950s. It is the superficial appropriation of black culture that makes the use of the "N" word problematic in a multitude of ways, and tossing it around like a Frisbee can yield many results, one of which is the Michael Richards fiasco.

"Nigger, you wanna die?" -- Richard Pryor as Slim in The Mack (1973)

Although Richards was pretty much being a jerk, the incident highlights the contemporary problem with using the "N" word: media and technology. Using a camera phone, Richards' fate was sealed when the video was released to the public. Now there are other times when video proof doesn't mean anything, i.e. Rodney King. But in this case it meant that Richards could not deny his mean-spirited and venomous use of the word. Legendary comedians like Paul Mooney, who built a career on the use of the "N" word, spoke out and stated that he would never use the word again because of this type of incident, coming to a conclusion that the late Richard Pryor had reached decades before. What Pryor knew then was that the use of the word had gotten out of control and moved far away from the term of endearment that some had professed it to be. It was socially irresponsible to use it then and is certainly irresponsible to use it now, considering our mass-mediated culture. Images and words are distributed throughout the world in seconds, and most of our society does not care about the root of anything. We like to pretend that race is no longer a factor and that racism does not exist anymore, when it truly does. "The Richards' incident is indicative of what is present in society and the racist underpinnings of our popular culture. We think that we are much further along in our race relations than we actually are," states Shomade-Smith. We are also living in a culture that is obsessed with today and could not care less about what happened in the past or what is happening in the future. The historic root of the word is not even known by many, and for those who do know, many do not care. Thus, the proliferation of the "N" word by anyone in American culture is highly problematic, because it can co-sign on racist ideologies that are pervasive in society, thereby normalizing racism and racist language.

The Ku Klux Klan (yeah those idiots) is notorious for using racial epithets to demean minorities. - ZUMA ARCHIVE
  • Zuma Archive
  • The Ku Klux Klan (yeah those idiots) is notorious for using racial epithets to demean minorities.

An example of this is our country's failure to properly address these blatant acts of racism in the media. Mel Gibson's film Apocalypto opened at No. 1 the week of Dec. 10, 2006, and has grossed almost $50 million in spite of his anti-Semitic rant. Seinfeld DVDs flew off of the shelves in November, making it the highest selling DVD of the week despite Richards' comments. Let's not forget former LAPD detective Mark Furhman, who has built quite a successful post-trial career as an author and expert on crime-solving, despite his generous use of the "N" word, which he denied on the witness stand of the O.J. Simpson trial -- making him a liar in addition to being a racist. What about Black Entertainment Television and record companies that have profited billions by allowing this word to be used publicly and in a depoliticized way?



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