The N-word: Term of Endearment or Racial Slur?

By Jessica Charles ’17

An appalling norm has reared its ugly head within the black community. Creeping its way into people’s vocabulary and finding a permanent place to stay, the N-word has managed to become a “normal” word for black people, so much so that some now use it as a way to greet friends.

The 1990s triggered the shift, with the use of the N-word in rap songs increasing significantly. A slight change was made regarding pronunciation and rap artists changed the end of the word from ‘er’ to ‘a.’ Given the cultural influence rap holds among the black community, music from artists such as Ice-T and Ice Cube paved the way for generations of black people to begin using the N-word as just another word in the English language.

Flash forward to 2016 and the N-word is now used as a term of endearment between black people, synonymous to “bro” or “dude.” The popularity of the word is evident among younger generations, especially teenagers. When walking through the school hallways, overhearing two people greet each other with the N-word happens almost as often as security guards yelling at students to get to class once the late bell rings.

“I hear people call each other the N-word all the time and it’s done in such a casual manner,” said Briana Clinton ’17. “It has basically become second nature for some of us to call each other that because we just hear it so often so we’re accustomed to it now.”

For older black generations, filled with people who were alive to witness the Civil Rights Movement, the new use of the N-word is a tough pill to swallow. Many argue the N-word is something that people should never say, given the dark history that’s linked to it. Some in the civil rights generation still can’t bring themselves to say the word today because it’s still so traumatizing.

“Whenever I hear two black people use that word with each other, it breaks my heart,” said Francis Griffin, who was in her twenties during the Civil Rights Movement. “I can’t count the number of times I was called the N-word and cannot begin to explain the emotional scars that remain after all these decades.”

The issue is that changing the end of the N-word from ‘er’ to ‘a’ doesn’t suddenly change things. It doesn’t automatically erase the history behind the word. A countless number of black people throughout the 1900s were lynched, raped, and dehumanized, all while the N-word rang through their ears. For many, it was the last word they heard before taking their last breath. It’s a word used by racist people to insult and degrade black people not only during slavery and the 1960s, but even today. This is exactly why the N-word cannot suddenly be changed into a casual term. Doing so is the equivalent of turning a blind eye to the evil that slaves and many others were subjected to.

“I don’t think anyone should be using the N-word because it’s an offensive term,” said Emina Bicic ‘17. “We should be spreading kind and uplifting words, not perpetuating discriminatory ones.”

Nevertheless, many black people defend using the N-word, arguing that it’s about the context of the word, not the word itself.

In a 2007 interview on the Oprah Winfrey Show, rapper Jay-Z was quoted as saying, “For our generation what we did is we took the power out of that word. We turned a word that was very ugly and hurtful into a term of endearment.”

But is that really the case? If the context of the N-word has unanimously been changed, why is it that if a white person utters the word, without any malicious intent, black people automatically feel offended and assume it was meant as a racial slur? If the meaning of the N-word has truly been changed, why can’t everyone use it? The double standard that exists when it comes to using the N-word shows changing the meaning of such a heavy word is too problematic.

Now I’m not suggesting there should be a complete ban on the N-word because policing language won’t work and won’t change the fact that the word exists. However, people need to begin taking into consideration the hate that fueled the creation of the N-word and the lingering trauma it has instilled in older black generations.

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