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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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"Die Nigger Die!" -- H. Rap Brown/Jamil Al-Amin

The use of the "N" word is complicated. We laugh at Hollywood stars and dubious politicians entering rehab in an attempt to right their wrongs, but perhaps our society needs a 12-step program to deal with our nonsense. The uproar over the use of the "N" word has led many to call for a ban on the word all together, which is actually quite intelligent but undermines our First Amendment right of free speech. I'm actually glad to know that Gibson, Richards and Washington are evildoers so that I can choose not to support their projects. If the word were banned, how would I know? Can you really determine when a word as tenuous as this one should or shouldn't be used and by whom? What happens to art and literature if we do ban the word? "The public use of the word personally offends me. To hear it used so freely is unnerving, but on a policy standpoint, I don't think it should be banned because of the precedent that it would set in terms of censorship," says Dr. Darrick Hamilton, professor at the New School for Social Research, a university in New York.

The use of the "N" word is messy, and I too hate to hear the word floating around, particularly on college campuses. It assaults my psyche, and I'm supposed to be young and hip, which of course is relative. So, I should hip people out there to another point -- the "N" word is a fighting word, even in the black community. The wrong tone or inflection when using it can get you hurt, and I'm not talking just about your feelings. While I do not ever advocate violence under any circumstances, the fact remains that the "N" word is a fighting word. The fact that Michael Richards made it off of that stage in one piece is miraculous to me.

I am currently in a 12-step program to stop using the word altogether because I believe that at this point, more harm from its use is occurring than any symbolic good. This may not be your choice, because after all is said and done, you have a choice. So, I would caution anyone to think before using the "N" word, particularly in a public forum; the only thing that is certain about this word is the uncertainty of how it will be received.

Nsenga Burton is a Charlotte-based writer, filmmaker and academician.



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