Use of the 'N-Word' in Public

CNN anchor and presenter Don Lemon attends the 28th Annual GLAAD Awards at New York Hilton Midtown on May 6, 2017 in New York City.
Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Is it ever okay to use the N-word? Many people both in and outside of the African-American community would say no. They believe the word is hate speech rather than a term of endearment and object to any person—black, white or otherwise—using the term.

While some people would never use the N-word to refer to a black person or interchangeably with the word “man,” as rappers largely use it, they do argue that there are indeed times when it’s appropriate to use the epithet. Which occasions would these be? When journalists are reporting on the word, when the word comes up in literature and when there’s a discussion of a historical nature or even a discussion of contemporary race relations in which the word is relevant.

Journalists and the 'N-Word'

Journalists don’t necessarily get a pass to use the N-word, but if they’re reporting on a story in which the N-word is relevant, their use of the slur is typically not viewed as offensively as someone else using the N-word as hate speech, slang or for kicks. In a CNN special called “The N Word,” anchor Don Lemon used the term in its entirety.

Of this decision, he explained, “Only six letters, just two syllables, yet lethal. A word so powerful, so controversial we have to warn you that what you’ll hear and see could offend you. But in order to explore the word and all of the meaning, there are times we actually have to say it. I’ll say it if it’s pertinent…” Lemon has also said that reporters of any color should be able to use the word on air.

Because of the N-word’s ugly history, however, typically black anchors vocalize the term on air rather than their white counterparts. In Spring 2012, two non-black CNN reporters used the N-word on air. This sparked controversy despite the fact that the term was directly related to the stories the journalists were reporting on.

While some take offense to white journalists ever uttering the N-word, public figures such as Barbara Walters and Whoopi Goldberg have questioned why reporters should be banned from using the epithet if it’s relevant to the story they’re investigating. Goldberg remarked in 2012 that using the N-word makes the epithet sound “cute.” She said, “Do not eliminate it. It’s part of our history.”

The N-Word in Literature

Because the N-Word was once used routinely to refer to blacks, classic American literature is filled with the term. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, contains more than 200 references to the N-word. As a result, NewSouth books released a new version of the Mark Twain classic scrubbed clean of the N-word in 2011. The publisher said that educators had grown uncomfortable teaching this book in the diverse classrooms of the 21st century.

Critics of NewSouth’s move argued that censoring the N-word from the literary classic whitewashes American history. For teachers who wish to use the uncensored version of Huck Finn in their classrooms, there are strategies available to help them promote racial sensitivity regarding the N-word. PBS recommends that teachers prepare their class for reading the book by alerting students that Huck Finn contains a pejorative term and asking their opinions about how the word should be dealt with in their classroom.

“Emphasize that exploring the meaning and use of the word does not mean an acceptance or approval of the word,” PBS states.

In addition, PBS recommends that teachers have students examine the power of words used as slurs and to tell parents of students ahead of time that their children will be reading sensitive subject matter. Some teachers may choose to have students only read the book in class silently instead of aloud to avoid offending their classmates. When African-American students are in the minority in a classroom, tensions about reading the N-word may run higher.

White teachers may refrain from using the slur when they come across it on the page, while teachers of color may feel comfortable reading the N-word aloud. Villanova University Professor Maghan Keita supports teachers confronting the N-word head on while teaching Huckleberry Finn to students.

He told PBS, “Within the framework of the text, if you don’t understand how that word can be used, that it’s satire [in the case of Huck Finn] -- if you don’t teach that, you’ve missed a teaching moment. Our task is to prepare students to think so that when confronted with these words in a text they can see what the author’s intent is. What is the meaning of it in this text?”

The N-Word in Discussions About Race Relations

In discussions about race, particularly racial discrimination, it may be appropriate to make reference to the N-word. A student writing a paper on the civil rights movement may mention that African Americans were routinely referred to by the racial slur during this period. Public officials at the time openly referred to civil rights activists as the N-word.

A student would be well within her rights to quote this language. However, if the student is not a person of color, she would be wise to think twice before she says the slur aloud. Writing the slur may be acceptable, especially, if it’s part of a quote. Saying the slur is likely to offend some people no matter the context in which it is used.

Even in contemporary discussions about race, the N-word may turn up. A film student may mention that Quentin Tarantino’s movies have sparked controversy because of how often characters use the N-word. That student may decide to use the slur in its entirety or refer to it as the N-word.

“60 Minutes” reporter Byron Pitts remarked that sometimes it’s important to use the slur rather than a euphemism for it because it’s a matter of authenticity.

“Because of my own upbringing, because of my profession, there’s real value in truth,” he said. “My grandmother used to say sometimes the truth is funny, sometimes the truth is painful, but the truth is always the truth, and let the truth speak.”

Anyone who uses the N-word in its entirety does so at his own risk. Using the word may offend people even if it’s not being directed at someone as a slur. That’s why even in contexts in which it may be completely appropriate to utter the N-word, the speaker should not only exercise caution but be prepared to defend his use of the painful slur.