BY YOJI COLE
N-word offenders from
this century and the last
(from top to bottom):
Duane “Dog” Chapman;
former governor of
Georgia; and Michael
he nation’s two largest cities symbolically banned
it and the NAACP symbolically buried it. It’s the
N-word, and it’s coming under fire as black community
leaders demand that regular citizens and music artists
stop using it.
But rappers use the word excessively in their lyrics. Tune a digital radio to a rap station—digital radio permits language prohibited on FM radio—and you’ll hear the N-word time and again.
So who is to say who can say it and who can’t? And is there a
double standard when it comes to the N-word? Why are white
people excoriated for using it and black people are not?
In November, Duane “Dog” Chapman was the latest white
person caught saying the N-word. Chapman, a bounty hunter,
became a celebrity because of a reality cable-TV program.
Chapman’s son recorded a conversation with his father, during
which Chapman used the N-word repeatedly to describe his
son’s black girlfriend. When the story got out, Chapman’s TV
career ended abruptly.
Incidents like these cause some white people to be defen-
sive. Some apologize. But often, people ask, “Why is it wrong
for Chapman or other people who are not black to use the
N-word when black people, especially black rappers, use it?”
The answer has a lot to do with the history of the word
and how it has been used by black people, white people and
others who use it to describe blacks.
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“The history of the N-word is one that is deeply rooted
in oppression and dehumanization,” says Hilary O. Shel-
ton, director of the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., bureau.
“It’s a word that comes from a very troubling history in
this country of racial segregation and racial supremacy.”
The word “nigger” is derived from “niger,” the Latin
word for the color black, writes Randall Kennedy, a
Harvard Law School professor and author of Nigger: The
Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. It did not enter the
American lexicon as a derogatory word. It did, however, en-
ter into a system that treated black people derogatorily, to
put it mildly. So it is through a racist culture that the word
evolved into the current usage.
Kennedy details in his book the first instances and
different forms in which the N-word appeared: “When
John Rolfe recorded in his journal the first shipment of
Africans to Virginia in 1619, he listed them as ‘negars.’ A