Should we say “the N-word”?

My 12 year-old daughter was telling me of a book she was reading in her Language Arts class: Warriors Don’t Cry.  The book is set in Arkansas during the era of segregation as the integration of schools is implemented due to Brown v Board of Education.  So while riding in the car she blurts out, “The book I’m reading in L.A. has a swear in it”.  “Oh yeah”, I replied.  I don’t particularly have an issue with 7th graders reading literature with curse words in them.  “Yeah, it has the N-word in it, but don’t worry, when Mr. V came to that part he just said “the N-word”, he didn’t say the real word because he said it’s a real bad word that we don’t say”.  My response to her: He should have said it.  The author wrote it with the intention of being read.  To be clear, if the book has an actual curse word in it I think the teacher should read it as well.

I’m not naive to the issues which arise when someone who isn’t black says “nigger” in any context.  I’m not even going to address here the double standard society has accepted as to who can say nigger and who cannot.  However, I think the outrage and flabbergasted reaction when the word is uttered in public is manufactured in most cases.  As grown-ups, are we really not emotionally stable enough to contain ourselves when we hear an offensive racial slur?

Lest any readers be confused with the point I am trying to make.  I’m not advocating for racial slurs to be directed toward people.  In literature or even when quoting someone, on the other hand, I believe the use of the slur — which ever slur — may be entirely appropriate and ought not be censored.  We should be mature enough to recognize when offense is intended and when it’s not.  If no offense is intended on the part of the person from whose mouth the slur is uttered, then none should be taken.  And if it is, I would suggest the problem is with the hearer and not the speaker.  Some people are simply far too sensitive and capitulations like this only serve to reinforce their hyper-sensitivities.

In the end, context is everything, isn’t it?  Perhaps my ability to not be offended, especially by things which aren’t meant to be offensive — which seems to be unique but shouldn’t be — is coloring my view on this.  But seriously, can’t we just be grown-ups?


  1. Guess what – “Nigger” is a word used in historical contexts. Originally it was just a corruption of the word “Negro”. And black people use the word to each other all the time but pretend offense it someone else says it. I’m tired of PC crap.

    I think the “F” word is much worse and yet our kids in schools are permitted to use that, and it is in all sorts of their required reading.

    Nigger is a word to use in its context. If I’m reading Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn out loud, I’m going to say “nigger” when I get to that word. It is stupid to suggest otherwise.

  2. My little girls are more concerned with the “s” word: stupid (GASP). But, when it comes up, I’ll have no problem telling them that the “n” word is nigger, and that unlike stupid, it is only a derogatory and should almost never be used. The exception, of course, is when reading allowed.

    Except in literature from a time when “nigger” was as common as any other racial identifier, it’s used to tell us about the one saying it. The guy is a jerk. We take away the impact intended by the author by speaking the euphemism. When discussing the literature, I think “the n word” is more appropriate. “His use of the n word tells us more about his character”, for example.

    And, yes. We should all be mature enough to recognize the difference.

    • C2C

      I think you’re right, by softening the language through the abbreviation we white wash the “speaker”. It almost makes the character less offending which does a disservice to the author and his story.

      • You were right. The author put the word there for a reason.

        A teacher should be able to preface the lesson with “This contains language that was common in the time it was written, but is not acceptable today”. That is, if the content is worth teaching at all. If it’s an important work, then say the word and learn from it.

  3. I think that sometimes the PC culture goes too far. When I was in Grade 5 my teacher read “The old man and the sea” to us and said the word negro in context repeatedly.

    If it is in context, it is not wrong to use any word. If there is a misogynist character who uses the word “cunt” to describe women in a book in the context of the nature of that character, then the word serves a purpose. Words betray characters point of view, and if you water down characters, you water down the point of the story.

    Besides, what better way to make a word have power than to make it “that which cannot be named”?

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