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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The N-Word: Discussing the Controversy

Without it even being written, you know exactly which word I’m talking about. The controversy of the actual word is exemplified by the fact that this article, which is about the word and its use, will never actually name the word itself. The term is so controversial and raises such sensitive issues that to state it, even in the context of discussing its use, feels taboo. In 2007, New York City dealt with the issue by putting a ban on the word. Although there is no punishment or fine for using it, the ban is meant to encourage people not to use the word. Should the word be banned? Is it ever appropriate to use it in certain contexts? And, if so, who can say it?

Barbara Lewis, director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute at UMass Boston, described the n-word as being analogous to the character Elegba from African folklore. “He’s a trickster figure. He likes to stir up trouble, but not so much as to create trouble as to make people think. He’ll play two sides against the middle, and that’s what I think the n-word represents. It’s got a flipside and a flop side.”

One obvious side of the term is the history of its use to demean and dehumanize people of African descent. “The other side,” Lewis continued, “is that in order to take the sting out of that word, it was used over and over again so that it did not wound … Like, I’ll hurt you before you hurt me, or, I’ll take away your ability to hurt me by using that word by myself, so that you don’t have the control and you don’t have the power; it’s mine. There’s a kind of agency and sense of empowerment in the word, and that’s very often- though not exclusively-the way that people who are black have used it.”

Erica Singletary of the Black Student Center doesn’t use the word herself, and would rather no one use it; however, she does understand why black people use it in certain contexts. “We own it,” she explained. “The struggle is ours, and everything behind that word is ours. We’ve overcome it and have gone through so much to overcome it that the ability to take that word and make it mean something completely different is something in and of itself.”

Although Lewis and Singletary have similar thoughts on general use of the word, their perspectives differ on its New York City ban. Lewis supports the ban, saying, “I think sometimes we’re a bit too free. We live in a society where some people are able to get away with language they shouldn’t be able to get away with. So, the fact that we’re starting to have a bit of a language police, I think that’s a good thing.”

In contrast, Singletary doesn’t want to see the word banned: “The struggles of our parents and grandparents are deeply rooted in our culture, and that word is a part of our culture, and the way we change it also makes it part of our culture. So, by banning that word, it’s also banning a part of our culture.”

Whether you support certain uses of the word, or feel it should be banned altogether, it’s a dialogue that needs to be had. “It’s not a discussion that’s being had on any kind of large scale with the inclusion of Black America,” Singleton said. “I don’t feel like we’re really being asked, ‘how do you feel?’ or, ‘what do you want to do about it?’ … Black America should be asked to come to the table to talk about it, instead of us being talked about or having problems solved for us.”