The “N” Word is not Just a Word

A Response to Dr. Laura Schlesinger

Note: I know this topic isn’t exactly timely, but my life has been pretty busy. I have so many ideas right now, but not the time to get them out. Bear with me, Mad Sociologist fan

When I was teaching literature one of the books on my required reading list was Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. There were times when the students were expected to read passages from the book aloud so I could assess their reading ability. Of course, Twain’s novel was chock full of the “N” word. Despite this, I would not allow my students to skip over it, or to use a euphemism when they had to read the offending word. They had to read it aloud.

This made my students uncomfortable, and not just my white students. Contrary to Schlesinger’s insinuation that black people can just say the “N” word without issue, my black students were demonstrably uncomfortable using this word in the context of a classroom. This underscores the complexity of social dynamics that are often blurred by the generalizations made by pundits. However, I happen to believe that discomfort is often a very good educational tool (at times).

After the read aloud I would lead a discussion about what was read. In this case, the discussion centered around the “N” word. “Why did you guys have such a hard time reading that word? It’s just a word.” The students squirmed and often reiterated my comment that it’s just a word…”it’s just hard to explain.” One student summed it up best when she said, “but it’s not just a word. It’s not. There’s more to it than that.” What these students seemed to know instinctively, but were finding it difficult to elucidate was that words, in this case the “N” word, are infused with more than just definitive meaning, but that they carry with them a historical and cultural contextual meaning. In this case, the “N” word carries with it a brutal history of oppression and dehumanization. It cannot be separated from that cultural memory.

Invariably, the discussion turns to “so why is it okay for black people to say it, but not for white people?” This is a good question for high school students steeped in a culture of fairness. Yes, here’s a word that has a historically and profoundly negative connotation, but changes with the interpersonal context. One could see how this inconsistency would be confusing to teenagers.

One cannot, however, understand how a so called expert in interpersonal relations, like Dr. Laura, could be derailed by this topic.

Sociologists recognize the existence of dominant and subordinate groups within a given society. Historically and socially the “N” word was used by the dominant group as a means of demeaning and dehumanizing the subordinate group. It was one of many tools used for keeping blacks “in their place.” So based on the cultural context of the “N” word, yes, it will have a different meaning when used by members of the historically dominant group than when used by the historically subordinate group.

Among blacks, the use of the “N” word could be a form of symbolic resistance to domination. It could be a minstralization of the word that betrays its destructive meaning. And, yes, it could be used as a means of establishing dominance in intragroup relations. The bottom line is that the “N” word, in and of itself, is not just a word, and Dr. Laura should have known better.

Then I can ask the question, is Huckleberry Finn a racist book simply because it makes such constant reference to the “N” word? Indeed, it is not. Twain uses the word in exactly the context it was used during that time. Regardless, Huckleberry Finn turns social convention on its head as the rascally Huck questions the legitimacy of the social norms of which he could never really master on his own. It isn’t Huck who is a deviant, it’s a ridiculous society. Among the most ridiculous elements of that society was in race relations, the idea that one human being can and should be slave (or one could dare say subordinate) to another human being. Huck realizes this when he affirms his willingness to go to Hell in order to help Jim, the runaway slave and the all round best person in the novel.1

So, no, Dr. Laura is not necessarily a racist based on her use of the “N” word alone. Certainly it’s not the point of this post to paint her as a racist. However, Dr. Laura’s repeated use of the “N” word despite protestations from her caller is disconcerting, at best. Dr. Laura used the “N” word out of anger, and as a means, either conscious or in the heat of the moment, to belittle this caller…to put her in her place. And this was the original, abusive intent of the “N” word.

_______________________

  1. Of course, the argument can be made the Twain minstralizes Jim, thus reinforcing racial stereotypes. I would submit that this is true. Mark Twain was ahead of his time in many ways…but not in all ways.

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