Commentary: The N-Word Defines Blackness in All the Wrong Ways

Woman with two teen (14-18) daughters, portrait.  (Photo: David Waldorf/Getty Images)

Commentary: The N-Word Defines Blackness in All the Wrong Ways

We cannot defend the use of any language that debases our women. Yet we do.

Published November 22, 2013

The discussion should have been held in earnest a while ago. But we let the music industry and its denigration of our women and our culture reign. We’ve now become comfortable with “b-----s” and “h--s” as words for those beautiful sisters who’ve birthed us.

We cannot defend such language – or any language that abases our women. Yet we do.

But if we find that objectionable, if you detest the tenor of Rick Ross, 2 Chainz and Gucci Mane’s lyrics about our sisters, can you muster the same white-hot rage for a word that, historically, has denigrated both Black women and Black men?

It seems not, because we find ourselves still discussing calmly the use of the N-word at a time when, frankly speaking, we ought to be focusing our attention on more pressing matters. For some reason, we can’t move forward until we find resolution for the present and the past, and we surely can’t move anywhere when public personalities like Mike Wilbon and Charles Barkley claim it’s cool to toss around the N-word like Skittles.

The N-word, however, had been under scrutiny long before Wilbon and Barkley offered their thoughts on it in the wake of the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin controversy and the Matt Barnes tweet. We heard much talk about the N-word a year ago when director Quentin Tarantino liberated the word in his film Django Unchained.

Whatever pretense existed about how inappropriate it was vanished under Tarantino’s relentless use of it. While his use of the N-word offended our sensibilities, we weren’t so offended that we stepped forward to call for a boycott of his movie. Those of us who are critics of the word have insisted that American society — Blacks and whites, rappers and film directors — preserve the word’s centuries-old connotation.

Nothing about that connotation speaks to a positive image of the Black race. We can play spin doctor and try to call its use harmless, but in doing so, we rewrite our history; we steam-clean a word that is filthy, obscene and humiliating to our ancestors, even if it isn’t necessarily to some of us.

Our ancestors would not be proud.

For more than two decades now, we’ve allowed the N-word to wrap itself in an urban cachet none of our ancestors would approve. Calling the N-word cool doesn’t mean it is, because at its root, the N-word remains foul, offensive and profane – or whatever adjective that comes to mind to tell us we have lost our historical common sense when we look at it in any positive way.

At some point soon, reason might come into play. At some point, others might do what retired NFL stars Harry Carson and John Wooten did a couple of days ago: voice opposition to the callous use of the word  that Wilbon and Barkley favor.

Take a step back, explore what it means to be a Black person now in America; think about what it used to mean; and if you see acceptance of the N-word as hip and harmless, you play yesterday’s fool just as Wilbon and Barkley do.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: David Waldorf/Getty Images)

Written by Justice B. Hill


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