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We can't say the N-word, but how should we write it?

By Courtland Milloy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 23, 2010; B01

The Macon Telegraph in Georgia calls it "the iniquitous N-word."

At the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., it's "the dreaded N-word."

Laura Schlessinger gave up her radio talk show last week after using on air what the Chicago Tribune called "the 'n' word 11 times in five minutes."

And just what kind of word is this N-word -- N technically being a letter that's often used in statistics to mean the norm, in chemistry as short for nitro and in physics for nano?

Oh, snap, you mean the N-word -- the euphemism for that taboo sound, the racial curse: in eye, double g and . . . er, excuse me; I almost cast a spell. You can't spell it, either.

We can, however, play a game that linguists call circumlocution -- where we speak or write around the word so that you don't actually see or hear it but still know what it means. That way, the idea of what's being referred to sinks imperceptibly into the subconscious and thus keeps the taboo strong.

An Internet search for "Dr. Laura and N-word" resulted in more than 6 million hits. Particularly interesting are blogs run by college kids who are starting to question the sanity of the game.

"Clearly the word 'nigger' is offensive," one of them wrote. "But using euphemisms like n----- is just silly. Either you know what the dashes represent -- in which case, why not actually spell out the word, or you don't -- in that case, the whole exercise ends up being meaningless."

Well, oops, there it is. Some news organizations will relent and publish the actual word, but only if it is used in an innocuous quote about the word itself. On the other hand, if the quote about the word is not so innocuous -- say, a white person like Schlessinger is trying to tell a black caller not to be so sensitive about the word -- then it's back to euphemisms.

Or, more accurately, our superstitions about "the one that must not be spoken." If race relations in America are so bad that we can't look at a word, then we are doomed.

In quoting some of what Schlessinger said on the show, the Huffington Post said: "Turn on HBO and listen to a black comic, and all you hear is n****, n*****, n*****."

Now we're spelling the word with snowflakes.

Kathy Times, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, chose the small "n" -- unlike the capital N or "N" preferred by most print media. And to think, it took more than a century of struggle to get newspapers to capitalize "Negro," and now we get the big "N" word without even asking for it.

"I will never forget the first time I was called the n-word," Times wrote in a statement inviting Schlessinger to join black journalists in a conversation about race. "In fact, a young white man in Alabama hit me with a double dose of hate and called me a n-- b--. It was 2002. . . . It took a few seconds for the full impact of the slur to hit me. Then, it felt like I'd been sucker punched in the gut."

I empathize with Times. And yet, you just can't give people the power to gut-punch with a word. Not saying don't get angry; just don't be shocked. Then learn to detoxify the word by bringing it into the light, not letting it hide behind asterisks, dashes and ellipses.

Context matters, too; talking about the word is different from being labeled with it. And in the case of Schlessinger -- a white woman who plays pickup basketball games with her black "friend and bodyguard," as she calls him -- context is everything. She wouldn't be the first to think that such a relationship granted special privilege on race talk.

So when a black woman phones in complaining about her white husband's insensitive race talk, Dr. Laura locked and loaded.

"Give me two good examples of racist comments," she says. Schlessinger rejected the first example, saying a black woman married to a white man can't be hypersensitive.

"How about the N-word?" the caller asked. "So, the N-word's been thrown around."

Dr. Laura cocked, "Black guys use it all the time. Turn on HBO, listen to a black comic, and all you hear is . . ."

Bam. She unloaded -- 11 rounds in five minutes.

The caller was wounded, the nation shell-shocked. Dr. Laura quit; Sarah Palin urged her to "reload." Al Sharpton accused Palin of shooting blanks.

It's almost enough to make me holler a line from a song on Jay-Z's "Blueprint 2" album. You know, the one that goes: "N***a, please!"

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