N-Word usage continues to stir discussion

By Tim Mack in Opinions

October 13, 2011

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As Texas Governor Rick Perry’s bid for the GOP nomination for the presidency continues to take a nosedive, one of his controversies has stirred up an old discussion.

In the midst of an already disappointing bid for the GOP’s nomination, it was unveiled that Perry’s family leased a hunting camp. Near the entrance of the hunting camp was a large, flat rock standing upright and it read ‘Niggerhead.’

This particular column is not about the Perry controversy, as the story was excessively covered.

Instead, this column is about the discussion the controversy reignites, about the appropriateness of the N-word. My grandmother immediately contacted me after she watched The View. She wanted to tell me about the interaction between panelist Sherri Shepherd and Barbara Walters. She gave her take on it, with the perspective of an elder that has seen the progression of race relations in America.

For folks that weren’t able to see it and/or haven’t “YouTube’d” the segment, during the show’s Hot Topic segment, the group of ladies begin to discuss the Rick Perry controversy.

Moderator Whoopi Goldberg explained the controversy. They tied in Herman Cain’s use of the word “nigger” instead of N-word, which conflicted with what the media was doing at the time. Whoopi followed the lead of Mr. Cain and repeated the exact word on the rock.

Upon joining the discussion, panelist Barbara Walters repeated the same word as Whoopi, but added, “The fact that I just said it [niggerhead] gives me chills up my body.”

Sherri Shepherd immediately made it clear that there was a difference between how Barbara said it and the way Whoopi said it. Sherri went on to vocalize the chill she received when she heard Barbara use the word.

The ‘elephant’ in the room is the difference in race.

Whoopi Goldberg is an African-American woman and Barbara Walters is a Caucasian woman. Sherri clearly didn’t like the word being said by someone from another race. Barbara truly couldn’t understand it and seemed surprised by the incident.

In this case, Barbara felt reporting the story and its details wasn’t regurgitating the word in a negative manner. However, as a reporter, if you know repeating a derogatory word will offend members of the particular ethnic group, is it necessary?

This discussion on The View points to a larger point, when is it appropriate for Caucasian people to use the N-word?

Most would agree, the usage of the word “nigger” outside of art when attempting to accurately depict a time, place, or situation is inappropriate. In addition, directing the word towards an African-American is asking for an altercation of some sort.

Over time within the African-American community, a variation of the word (“nigga”) was adopted. Over time it was adopted as a depowering mechanism of the original word “nigger.” The debate over the usage of the word “nigga” within the African-American community is a cultural discussion to be had amongst members of the community.

In particular, during an episode of Oprah, rapper Jay-Z and Oprah Winfrey had a discussion about its usage, as they are on two different sides of the debate. Jay-Z made the argument of depowering the word as I mentioned above. However, Oprah’s argument was powerful and rather vivid. She explained her opposition was in respect to the many African-American lynched and how the very last word they heard was “nigger.” Although growing up in the 90s I could side with both sides, I personally found Oprah’s point to be powerful to the African-American struggle for equality.

Through music and film portraying Urban areas, the word’s [“nigga”] usage has spread, and other ethnic groups tend to be given a pass to say the alteration of the word, “nigga.” For example, many Latinos and Asians within my community (inner city Philadelphia) were habitual users of the word.

Usage by Caucasian people was widely unacceptable, no matter the ending of the word. As the rapid usage of the “–ga” version has spread, more Caucasian folks have found themselves in hot water for their usage of it.

A month ago, actor Alec Baldwin tweeted “I love that song NIGGAS IN PARIS!!!”

This tweet obviously didn’t go over well with many of Baldwin’s African-American followers. I’d like to point out that in the tweet Baldwin capitalized the title of the song. To an extent, I suspect, Baldwin knew his tweet might not go over well with his followers. Additionally, Baldwin could’ve censored the word, as many people on Twitter do in order to acknowledge the possibility this term could be offensive.

Rappers are known for making the “–ga” version rather popular. As a self proclaimed “Hip-Hop addict” I don’t see mainstream white rappers using the term. In seven studio albums, rapper Eminem has never used the term on any of his songs.

I’d like to end this column with the thoughts of a white rapper. I find it powerful, as it is they (white rappers) who are accepted into the culture to practice the genre (rap music). To get to their position, they had to be accepted by other members and ambassadors of the genre, and thus they have a better idea of what is appropriate and inappropriate.

The fact is that if it feels inappropriate, it probably is. No need to show race insensitivity and cruelness in order to use a word wrapped in bondage, racial injustice, cruelty and sub-human treatment.

This quote is by recently signed Eminem artist Yelawolf, another white rapper, who explains his thoughts on the use of “nigga” by white rappers and whether it is appropriate.

“Don’t embarrass white people and white rappers by doing that dumb s**t, by dropping the N-bomb and thinking you’re all cool and s**t. You’re going to find yourself slapped up and it might be by a white boy. Because you ain’t gonna embarrass me around my people like that.”

Preach Yelawolf.

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