On the ‘n-word’

Racism and bigotry exist.

Put like that, it seems like a cliché. Of course they do.

But a paradox of Barack Obama’s presidency is that even as some whites were screaming that he should go back to Kenya, they were denying that racism and bigotry were a problem. And a lot of the rationalization for ‘Blue Lives Matter’ is rooted in a white denial of ongoing racism, whether among police or in wider society.

I have said a few times now that i will not utter the ‘n-word,’ because as an older white man, for me to utter that word inevitably carries a meaning we all recognize, that horrible racist and bigoted animosity toward Blacks as a race that I would never want to express.

But it is possible to be racist and bigoted without saying the ‘n-word.’ Indeed, systemic racism is all about a racism that can exist even when those who enforce that racism do not intend to be racist. It is about a structure that is racist in effect, even where intention is absent, because we have failed to take into account varying circumstances, varying contexts.

Even before systemic racism, it is still possible to be racist and bigoted without saying the ‘n-word.’ Blacks face discrimination in myriad ways. They may not get the job. They may be paid more poorly or treated worse even if they do get the job. For example. All without ever saying the ‘n-word.’

So what am I to make of young Blacks using the ‘n-word,’ as they so often do in my back seat?

The ‘n-word’ is at least a disturbing word. I am not personally offended. But I have certainly talked with Blacks who take offense at the word regardless of who says it.

I have to suspect that on some level, that disturbance is part of the point. It’s a way of stripping away a veneer, a pretense that racism and bigotry do not exist, and asserting that even when we do not explicitly utter the ‘n-word,’ young Blacks still experience that racism and bigotry. That experience is something they share in common and when they refer to each other using that word, they are affirming that experience.

Whites like myself can acknowledge that experience. As a symbol, ‘n-word’ itself exists to refer to the actual word, the word I refuse to utter. It’s an intentional abstraction that enables us to discuss the word, to discuss its meaning, to discuss the reality of bigotry and racism without expressing that animosity ourselves.

But we should never forget, certainly never deny, that that racism, that bigotry, that animosity exist. And I suspect that when, regardless of our own race, we tell young Blacks they should not use that word, we are asking them to adopt the very veneer that they seek to strip away.

When whites rationalize their own use of the word by pointing to young Blacks’ use of it, they think—or at least say—they are being friendly, of identifying with their Black counterparts. But in truth, to do so diminishes that line of race, that line of racism, of bigotry, of animosity. It is to deny the difference of experience. It is, in effect, racist by its very denial of that difference.

For me, I have felt that I must leave it to Blacks themselves to settle among themselves their own dispute over their own use of the word. But whites exercise extraordinarily poor judgment when we use it. This is one we need to stay out of.

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