Jesse Jackson has recently come under fire for off the record comments he made in a FoxNews interview. First we learned that he expressed a desire to castrate Barack Obama, and now we learn that he also said the n-word in that same interview. This is a partial defense of the latter.
As a general rule, “using the n-word” is a serious matter. Some argue that it’s OK for blacks to use it since the word is directed at them rather than anyone else. In theory, I could accept that, if all blacks agreed that they wanted to “own” the word to strip it of its derogatory meaning, much as gays have done with words like “queer,” “homo” and, for that matter, “gay,” or as gun nuts have done with phrases like, well, “gun nut.” But if blacks as a group wanted to go that route, allowing the rest of us to use the word in the same harmless vein would largely follow as a matter of course. Once thousands of gays banded together as “Queer Nation” and five appeared on a TV show called “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” they pretty well gave up the right to tell the rest of us not to call them queers. And once I self-identify as a “gun nut,” I give up the right to criticize gunophobes for applying the term to others. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton understand this, which is why they, like many others, call on blacks and whites alike to renounce the word.
That said, a little common sense is in order. As surely as the word dog never bit anyone, there is using the n-word, and then there is really using the n-word. Simply uttering it in any context is not necessarily it. Off the top of my head, I can think of four discrete ways to “use” the n-word, in descending order of offensiveness:
- Using the N-word as a racial slur. This occurs any time a person of any race utters the n-word in reference to another human being whom he believes to be black. Robert Byrd probably used the word this way countless times when he was in the Klan. Rappers do it all the time today. A few unrepentant, hard-core white racists continue to do so, as well, while the rest of us rightly abhor it.
- Using the N-word as an all-purpose epithet. There is a school of non-thought in which “nigger means stupid.” No, dumbass, it doesn’t. From the days of the Roman Empire, “niger” has always meant black. It has never meant “stupid” (did you really think that Niger is so named because they consider themselves a nation of dumbasses?!), nor has it always had any negative connotation at all. But whether the original niger or its progeny was used in a good, bad or neutral way, it has always meant black. So when Robert Byrd infamously announced that there were “white niggers,” he may have been about one-tenth less of an asshole than he had been back in his Klan days, but what he lacked in asshole-hood he made up in abject stupidity.
- Using the N-word to insult someone other than the referent. A big part of the reason why the n-word has such horrible connotations today, while its Latin origin and its existing Latinate cognates do not, is its close connection with slavery. However, not all references to slavery are slights against the proverbial slave. In a culture that rightly abhors slavery, many such references are really intended to insult the proverbial slave-driver, not the putative slave. One of the two times in my adult life in which I recall using the n-word was when I was in my mid-20s, and my parents employed a nanny who could barely speak English. They paid her all right, generally treated her well, and even helped her enroll in community college classes, but my mother absolutely connipted when the nanny had the audacity to quit her job and pursue other opportunities elsewhere. She called me to vent about it, and I responded with something along the lines of “Good God, Mom, you sound like a plantation owner who can’t figure out why his nigger just left him.” She never complained about the departed nanny again, at least, not in my presence. Cf. Sacramento Bee cartoonist Dennis Renault’s brilliant 1994 cartoon, in which one Klansman turned to another and said, in reference to Louis Farrakhan, that “that nigger makes a lot of sense.”
- Discussing the n-word itself. Example: “Now listen, Johnny. ‘Nigger’ is very a bad word. Don’t use it.” Unless it’s deliberately overdone, this one should not offend at all.
FoxNews has thus far declined to release a transcript of the actual exchange, so the best we can do is extrapolate from the reported news stories what was probably said. Per CBS:
In additional comments from that same conversation, first reported by the blog TVNewser, Jackson is reported to have said Obama was “talking down to black people,” and referred to blacks with the N-word when he said Obama was telling them “how to behave.”
Note that they didn’t report that Jackson called Obama himself the n-word; rather, he accused him of talking down to other blacks and effectively treating them as lowly n-words. Big difference. Still offensive, still unfair, but hardly equivalent to using the word in sense #1 above. It’s more like #3; a bit insult to Obama as the proverbial slavedriver, no insult at all to blacks as a race.