The N Word

The Los Angeles Times, in a recent review of a live concert, mentioned that the rapper Kanye West performed one of his songs in a “G-rated” version. The audience, however, sang the choruses for him including the original lyrics, which, the reporter noted, contain numerous mentions of “the N-word.” Stories about West in the paper have referenced his self-proclaimed addiction to pornography and his predilection for multiple sex partners. But plainly stating that his songs employ the word “nigger” is out of bounds.

To be fair, the Times has a general policy of not printing profanity. Unlike, say, the New Yorker or Harper’s, the words “fuck” or “shit” do not appear in the newspaper. Instead, they are alluded to with varying degrees of coyness, such as when, in a recent front page news story, the word “asshole” was described as “a slang term for the anus.”

This kind of squeamishness only contributes power to words that would otherwise be mere words if not for the assiduous avoidance of them practiced by some precincts in our culture. “Nigger” is commonly thought of as a slur — except when rappers and other members of hip-hop culture employ it as a quotidian part of speech; then it’s cool. Our — meaning all of us who are not Snoop Dogg — discomfort with the word not only prevents us from uttering it, we also try not to write it, even when directly quoting an “artist” who uses the locution as commonly as he does “bitches” and “hos.”

Perhaps if we weren’t so scared of “nigger” — just as we’re terribly alarmed by “kike,” “wop”, and “gook” — we could rob the word of some of its frightening power. Homosexuals have effectively drained the words “queer” and “dyke” of their pejorative connotations by using them frequently and carelessly, understanding, it seems, that one cannot be hurt by the queer appellation if one is gladly willing to use it as an apt description of oneself or one’s friends. (It doesn’t hurt that a highly rated television show about tarting up hapless heterosexuals has the word in its title.) Blacks seem to be heading in this direction with nigger. A common scenario: Two fine gentlemen meet; they exchange complicated handshakes, and exclaim, “Whazzup, my nigga?”

If the bastions of cultural propriety — our news media and airwaves — continue to stigmatize the word, it has a better chance of remaining an ugly remnant of our country’s racist history. Nigger, nigga, niggaz, N.W.A, “the N word” — it doesn’t matter how it’s written. We know what it’s supposed to mean. Perhaps if society in general co-opted the word as promiscuously as hip-hop music has, we could turn it into an empty anachronism.

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