The “N Word”: Ignorant or Empowered?
John R. Shirley
Augusta State University
The “N Word”: Ignorant or Empowered?
The so-called “N Word” is a cause of intense divisiveness in the United States. There are several different views of using this word. The most obvious use of this word is as a pejorative for any person of color. Another use is by people who say they reserve this word “for the bad ones (who are people of color)”. A subset of this is people who say they use the N word for any stupid person, regardless of that person’s color. These people usually claim that the dictionary definition of “nigger” is of a foolish person. These categories are fairly easy to ascribe to ignorance and cultural underexposure. The last usages of the N word are more complicated. How should usage of this word by people of color be viewed? Use by people of color contains all the connotations of usage by others. Some people of color use this term to refer to all people of color, while some people of color use the term pejoratively to insult or refer slightingly to certain other people of color. It also may also include meanings of buddy, friend, or pal.
Some words that were originally pejoratives have been embraced by the communities they were levied against. The easiest example is “queer”, but there are other epithets. Some claim that embracing an insulting word robs it of its power to hurt, but is this a reasonable view? Is usage of the N word by people of color harmful, or does frequent use actually rob the word of its shock value? Ultimately, will use of the N word help or hurt the self-image and social interaction of people of color in the United States?
Brandt Williams, in a Minnesota Public Radio story from 8 August 2004, said “Some scholars say 'nigger' was derived from the Latin word for the color black which is spelled 'n-i-g-e-r.'” University of California-Berkeley professor Robin Lakeoff told Williams she believes “nigger” was originally a mispronunciation of “negro”. This author has heard claims that “nigga” is okay, but “nigger” is not, and Williams reports this is a commonly held view. The BBC’s Kari Browne claims the first record of the N word was in 1786, and that it was used by slave owners to refer to their slaves (2007).
One fairly popular view is that context is the most important deciding factor in whether usage of a word is negative and derogatory. New York City enacted a symbolic ban of the N word in 2007 (Cooke, 2007). Andrew Brown, in the University of Washington’s The Daily, contrasted the New York ban with a Santa Rosa, California case in which parents were suing a local school for punishing their daughter for using the expression “that’s so gay” (2007). Gay is a not a pejorative term for homosexuals, but if one uses gay to mean stupid, it has become insulting, even though a person is not being directly ridiculed. By using the term in this way, one must believe that all gay people are stupid, as well.
The NAACP’s CEO, Nelson B. Rivers III said “The N-Word is the most vicious of all racial insults and the most well known example of racist language and self-hatred by African Americans”. Sadly, deejay Eric B., quoted in the same NAACP-issued story, unintentionally points to a deeper underlying issue. “This is not just about burying the N-word,” he said. “This is more importantly about burying the attitude and behaviors that cause you to act like or be called that word. It’s time to take a stand” (NAACP, 2007). Carefully evaluating what Eric is saying gives a translation something like this: “You deserve the insulting terms you are called. Until you change, it’s your fault.” This is, ultimately, a heartbreaking stance. Was Bernadette Anderson, while peacefully eating dinner with her husband in a restaurant, somehow to blame when a little boy called her the N word? Was young Brandt Williams, at seven years of age, somehow to blame when he was likewise insulted (Williams, 2007)? Eric B. is effectively validating the use of the N word, because he believes it does describe some people.
Self-described “Urban Conservative” Akindele Akinyemi attended the ceremony, and he was strongly opinionated regarding it: “Do you really think super-rich thugs and wannabes are going to stop doing what makes money because a bunch of "leaders" and guilty-conscious liberal whites stage a ceremony?” Akinyemi went on to accuse the NAACP of focusing on the wrong issues instead of the more important challenges facing Blacks in America:
Suppose the NAACP could indeed magically eradicate racism. What changes would be wrought in the our community? Few, if any. Our brothers would still be perpetrating a vastly disproportionate amount of crime; 80 percent of Black babies would still be born illegitimate; and a huge number of Black kids would still be dropping out of school. In short, the self-inflicted problems that are today's biggest stumbling blocks in the Black community would still be in place. And these are what the NAACP should be obsessing on. But it's much easier and more heroic to say you're fighting external villains than to courageously face the reality that people don't want to hear. Just ask Bill Cosby. But until the NAACP, and other Black organizations, quit hiding behind racism, and begin facing and remedying those self-inflicted problems, the road to Black problems will continue to be strewn with major obstacles (Akinyemi, 2007).
Using the N word, even with a different syllable, is a hotly debated issue in today’s United States. It is used derogatively by some people of color and others, and it is used as a term of endearment by some. Racism is inexcusable, but whether using this emotionally charged word is racist is a personal determination. This author will never use it.
Akinyemi, A. (2007). We Need to Bury Racism Not the N-Word. Akindele Unleashed.
10 July 2007. Retrieved 27 April 2008 from
Browne, K. (2007). Should racist word be rehabilitated? British Broadcasting
Corporation. 1 March 2007. Retrieved 26 April 2008 from
Cooke, J. (2007). Racial slur banned in New York. British Broadcasting Corporation. 1
March 2007. Retrieved 26 April 2008 from
NAACP. (2007). Rap Pioneers Join NAACP in Funeral for the N-word, Sign On to
“Stop” Campaign. NAACP.org. 29 June 2007. Retrieved 25 April 2008 from
Williams, B. (2004). The ‘n-word’. Minnesota Public Radio. 8 August 2004. Retrieved
25 April 2008 from