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Language still matters


Question & Answer

Q: By A Reader

I was on a Zoom social with a few friends recently. They are of various races, but mostly black. I am white and good friends with them all. I used the n-word, repeating what one of my black friends said. I was told I was wrong for using it. My black friends use it a lot and around us all. Why was I wrong for using it?

A: By Rev. Irene Monroe
Dear Reader,

The language we use in our daily lives has a direct impact on how we interact with others.  This is especially true with the words we use for race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disabilities, etc. In this political climate hate speech is becoming common use. And, there has been an uptick of the use of the n-word, even from the mouths of people one would not expect.

For example, when the word slips from the mouths of race conscious allies like Bill Maher -comedian, political commentator of HBO political talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher” in 2017 – a lot of shock and hurt was felt.

When responding to his guest Senator Ben Saase of Nebraska’s question,“ Would you like to come work in the field with us?” Maher mockingly replied, “Work in the fields? Senator, I am a house n—er.”

Nowadays it’s often difficult to discern in some instances if the n-word is being used as an epithet or a term of endearment. The confusion illustrates what happens when an epithet like the n-word, once hurled at African-Americans in this country and banned from polite conversation, now has a broad-based cultural acceptance in our society.

The notion that it is acceptable for African Americans to use the n-word with each other yet it is considered racist for others outside the race to use it unquestionably sets up a double standard. And, because language is a public enterprise, the notion that one ethnic group has property rights to the term is an absurdly narrow argument. Moreover, the fact that African Americans have appropriated the n-word does not negate our long history of internalized self-hatred.

Shortly after Maher dropped the word many on Twitter chimed in defending him stating he used a modified n-word, meaning it ended in an “a” rather than a “r.” Many today argue the meaning of the n-word is all in how ones spell it. By dropping the “er’ ending and replacing it with either an “a” or ‘ah” ending the term morphs into a term of endearment.

However, I contest you cannot conjugate the n-word because it is firmly embedded in the lexicon of racist language that was and still is used to disparage African Americans. Moreover, many slaveholders pronounced the n-word with the “a’ ending, and in the 1920’s many African Americans use the “a’ ending as a pejorative term to denote class difference among themselves.

In my opinion, our use of the n-word speaks less about our rights to free speech and more about how we as a people – both white and black Americans – have become anesthetized to the damaging and destructive use of epithets. Reclaiming racist words like the n-word neither eradicate its historical baggage nor its existing racial relations among us. Rather, it keeps the hate and hurt alive.

~ Rev. Irene Monroe

About the Author
The Reverend Monroe does a weekly Monday segment, “All Revved Up!” on NPR’s WGBH (89.7 FM). She is a weekly Friday commentator on New England Channel NEWS. Monroe is the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail, Guided Walking Tour of Beacon Hill: Boston’s Black Women Abolitionists. A Huffington Post blogger and a syndicated religion columnist; her columns appear the Boston LGBTQ newspaper Baywindows, Cambridge Chronicle, and the Boston Globe.

Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American, queer and religious studies. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Her papers are at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College’s research library on the history of women in America. Click here to visit her website.

Review & Commentary