Do I Use the N-word?


(Or, at least I try very hard not to, if we’re being honest.)

I refrain from using the “nuclear bomb of racial epithets”, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. This whole topic, of which I walk a tightrope just writing about, brings up the classic question: Who can use the N-word?

The N-word has become ubiquitous in today’s lexicon, not so much as in print (see the word’s results in Google’s Ngram), but certainly in pop culture, and in the occasional self-destructive slip by non-Black, well-meaning or not, politicians, celebrities, athletes, or others who find themselves at the center of a firestorm of backlash. I have little sympathy for these folks, for they should know the destructive power and historical baggage of the word, even if many (i.e. White) have become desensitized to the word. Ignorance is no excuse.

I have recently needed to come up with a concerted stance on the word, prompted by my teenage children, who have undoubtedly heard it outside of the home, and are already questioning its meaning. (Plus, there is a whole genre of hip-hop I want to expose them to!)

I think it’s best to start with a scholarly briefing of the N-word, including its history. Go promptly to Randall Kennedy’s seminal article: “Who Can Say Nigger? And Other Considerations”. Suffice to say, this article changed my thinking. In fact, it hit me with a brick. Dr. Kennedy does not paint a clear path forward to a “yes” or “no” platform. Rather, he gives the reader a history of the word, illustrates its power to dehumanize and destroy, but also legitimizes a case for its use for artistic pursuits (for some, not all people). The responsibility comes back squarely onto the reader to determine his or her own stance.

It should not be surprising that comedians offer us a way to make sense of the word (and a safe place to do so). Try this famous SNL skit on the power of the N-word, from Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor. Or, this more contemporary analysis from Chris Rock.

In the end, I choose to not use the N-word, in print or verbally, because I do not want to perpetuate the use of the word in our language, and I most certainly do not want to unwittingly unleash the destructive, historical power of the word on anyone around me. Nor do I have the credibility to validate its use in artistic expression (I am highly inartistic)–I most certainly don’t want to become this White guy. So, while the N-word can never, and perhaps should never, be eradicated from the English language, I will play my part in not perpetuating it. What will you do?

Going boldly into the Blogosphere – “Why Teaching Race in Schools Matters More Than Ever Before”

As the first of what will be regular posts on interest topics of mine–race/culture, mindfulness, leadership (refraining from politics or religion)–I thought I’d start with an excerpt from a recently published article in The American School of Bombay‘s Intersections periodical. I wrote about schools’ neglected curriculum, that which goes deeply into race and culture issues (i.e. the differences among us). Most schools give superficial attention to the issues tearing apart peoples in the West (and the world, for that matter). The disturbing race-driven events taking place in my own country prompted me to call in from Saudi Arabia to On Point Radio’s show “Race and Violence in America.”

International schools are ideal laboratories to explore the myriad differences within our humanity. Our populations are diverse, our mindsets are global, and we are able to educate our motivated youth away from their ethnic comfort zones. This is a recipe for growth. Skills such as collaboration, problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking are getting appropriate attention as relevant for the 21st century. However, we cannot take full advantage of our privileged position if we cultivate these 21st century skills without also confronting the real-world context of applying these skills in an environment bursting with tension—stress caused by our difficulty in coming to terms with our racial and cultural differences. Unfortunately, most schools across the world are not delving deep enough into topics of race, culture, and active anti-racism. In avoiding the uncomfortable, or the difficult, we are doing our youth a disservice.

We have a moral imperative to prepare our youth for an interconnected world, where cultures intersperse (and sometimes collide) more easily than ever. Today’s young people think about race more often than we might believe. They turn to each other about what they see and think, and they would surely benefit from an adult interpretation of these issues. Through the media, they find numerous examples of injustice: racism in professional sports, mass evictions of Roma from settlements in Europe, and advertisements reinforcing negative stereotypes. They see public officials mistaking ethnic origins for national identities[1]. They see our communities getting more segregated. They see the wealth gap widening. Often treated as simply newsworthy items, each issue or incident is a teachable moment, an opportunity to expose and come to grips with underlying issues of race, culture, and human rights.

How we understand, appreciate, and act on the differences inherent in humanity continues to be of paramount importance to society—as evidenced by blurring racial lines, a flat world[2], and entrenched institutional bias—and it has become more difficult to do so because it is not politically correct to be completely honest about one’s own racial views. In fact, there are countless examples of people (well-meaning or not) losing their jobs or reputations when mishandling a racial issue[3]. As a result of this hypersensitive climate, a frank discussion on race has been forced out of the public sphere. Racism, once “in your face”, now operates under the surface, re-emerging at inopportune times. When an incident does occur, racism is quickly denounced, and perpetrators condemned. But this knee-jerk response rarely moves society closer to peace and harmony. Racism has been exposed, but not addressed. No learning has taken place. So, where better to unpack race issues than in the relative safety of the school setting?

For the full article, follow this link


[2] Friedman, Thomas L. (2005) The World is Flat. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. New York.

[3] See for results from a simple Google search of “loses job because of racial comments”