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N-word in higher ed: Should we use it?

This editorial was written by graduate students enrolled in MC 550 (Opinion Writing)

By Joshua Bell, Ayanna R. Goodwin, Sivram D. Jackson, Alfredo M. Morelos, Franklin P. Nelson and Diana D. Shaffer.
On February 21, 2019

“The N-word” is a euphemism for a known derogatory term that is used to insult and degrade African Americans. The actual term, despite its wounding history, is still used to this day not only as a racial slur but increasingly by African Americans as a general reference to Black people or as a term of endearment. Some African Americans argue that they have “taken the word back” and flipped it to take the pain from it by adding a sense of positivity to the term. But as college students, is this a term that we should be using, especially at an HBCU? 

 

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, the word “Nigger” is at its core an ethnic slur typically directed toward African Americans as a means of marginalization. 

 

Dr. David Pilgrim and Dr. Phillip Middleton, professors at Ferris State University, note that the word’s history is usually traced to the Latin word “niger,” which means black. Think of the African country Nigeria. 

 

Over time, Pilgrim and Middleton point out the word gained various pronunciations and with those came competing definitions, depending upon who used the word and for what reason. 

 

“It is likely that nigger is a phonetic spelling of the white Southern mispronunciation of Negro,” Pilgrim and Middleton state in an online analysis titled Nigger and Caricature. “Whatever its origins, by the early 1800s it was firmly established as a denigrative epithet. Almost two centuries later, it remains a chief symbol of white racism,” they add.

 

 Despite the demeaning history of the word, it is frequently used today by African Americans as a term of endearment.  However, there is a clear divide between Blacks who use the word and those who absolutely despise the word. There are many instances in which people who have substantial followings use the word without shame or hesitation.  

 

“I say nigger all the time,” comedian Paul Mooney stated in an interview. “I say nigger 100 times every morning. It makes my teeth white.” 

 

Mooney argued that the more that Black people openly use the word it will shift the context of the word and strip away its ability to hurt. 

 

But many of those who have endured being belittled and encountered racism sing a different tune. To them the N-word is a word that brings pain and continues the vicious cycle of racism. They argue that using the word will only help normalize it and make others think that it is OK to say it whether it is used as a means to hurt or just in casual conversation. 

 

We acknowledge that the N-word is a touchy topic, but we believe a forum the Mass Communication Department is sponsoring next Tuesday to explore the word’s usage is a conversation that needs to be had. There are Black people who have no problem using the word in casual everyday conversations, but those same people often become angered when individuals of other races use the word. 

 

What then is the point of using this disgraceful word if you get upset when others use it against you? It makes no sense. 

 

Obviously there is an understanding that this is a word that is loaded and potentially dangerous. So why continue to use it? 

 

We argue that the N-word should not be used because of the negativity that it brings to our people. Even though some Black people may use it as term that shows friendship, some also use it as a term to signify stupidity and ignorance. And that was the reason the word came to be commonly used by White people when referring to Black people.

 

So if we will get upset with other races for calling African Americans that word, then we shouldn’t use that word to address one another. That double standard is an unfortunate example of hypocrisy in society. 

 

If higher education is about raising the awareness, understanding and consciousness of those who are exposed to it, then we think it is altogether important to challenge those who use it on campus to think about what they are doing when they are saying this word that seems to take on competing meanings depending upon who’s uttering it. Certainly, we cannot be proud to say that one may walk around the campus of a predominantly Black institution like Grambling State University and hear profanity and the “N” word being used in normal conversations. 

 

We have to demand more and think of ourselves as deserving of better treatment. We cannot expect others to have respect for us when we don’t have it for ourselves. 

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