I’m wading into this thicket because of a controversy at Rutgers University Law School in New Jersey. Last October, a criminal law student said the n-word while quoting a 1993 legal opinion during virtual office hours. The class’s professor, Vera Bergelson, told the New York Times this week that she didn’t hear the word said at the time and wishes she had.
I have great sympathy for that Rutgers student, a middle-aged White woman embarking on a second career in law. According to the Times story, she had the good sense to forewarn her classmates by saying, “He said, um — and I’ll use a racial word, but it’s a quote.” In that context, I can’t fault her for wanting to quote from the legal opinion exactly. But if she knew enough to warn of the forthcoming word’s “racial” nature, she should have known better than to utter the six-letter abomination in the first place.
A petition circulated on the Newark campus called for a policy on racial slurs and for the professor and the offending student to issue formal apologies. Both did so during a meeting with the criminal law class and first-year students. Now, there’s talk of a voluntary ban on racial epithets being spoken in class.
I have a better idea: How about people educate themselves on the ugly history of the n-word and then avoid articulating it? I mean, that’s why we have the clunky “n-word” euphemism in the first place.
Columbia University professor John McWhorter did a fine job recently tracing the etymology of the n-word and how the slur became “unsayable.” What was missing in McWhorter’s analysis was a thorough discussion of how that word was used to dehumanize Black people and keep them in their place, how the n-word was likely among the last words heard by Black people before they were lynched.
A 2017 report from the Equal Justice Initiative, “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror,” documents more than 4,000 extrajudicial killings (read, murders) across the country between 1877 and 1950. One was the 1906 lynching of Edward Johnson in Chattanooga, Tenn., in defiance of the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted him a stay of execution for allegedly raping a White woman.
Johnson was dragged from jail by a White mob to the Walnut Street Bridge, where he was hanged, and his body shot hundreds of times. The EJI report notes, “The mob left a note pinned on the corpse that read: ‘To Justice Harlan. Come get your [n-word] now.’” Johnson’s last words reportedly were, “God bless you all. I am innocent.” He was cleared of rape in 2000.
For African Americans, the n-word is not a Rorschach test. It’s a stress test, the intensity of which rises and falls depending on one’s mood and sense of charity in the moment it tumbles from non-Black lips.
To the White parents of children enamored with rap music, where the n-word is omnipresent, I implore you to teach them the horrific history that shrouds the word. Teach them that saying it can cause others great pain and pray they act accordingly. As for me, I am constitutionally incapable of saying the n-word. I will not participate in my own degradation or that of Black people by repeating it.
There is no avoiding the n-word. It’s everywhere, from American literature to legal opinions that get read aloud in a university law class. If you end up saying the n-word in full, I might be willing to give you a pass. But it would be better to pass on saying it at all.
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