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The ‘N-Word’

TRISTAN ROBERTS discusses the use of the ‘n-word’ regarding political correctness and who can say what.

Recently, I watched an interview with beloved actor Samuel L. Jackson. The interviewer brought up controversy surrounding a recent Tarantino film that featured the use of the “n-word”, but Jackson refused to even participate in the conversation unless the interviewer could say the word. The interviewer, a man as white as the world is wide, was pressed and poked by the actor and eventually, after a long hesitation, refused to say it. 

Footage is Out There Forever

Now, I would not attempt to argue that the interviewer absolutely should have caved to Jackson’s encouragement. To do so would be dismissive of the context of the conversation, not in the least because the conversation was being filmed. One of the key meanings of ‘political correctness’ is language aiming to avoid offence, and there is a near guarantee that some part of the interview’s audience would take offence to its use. 

Can There Be a Case for Saying the N-Word Out Loud?

It is important, though, to consider how far the desire to be politically correct actually goes to protect those who stand to be offended. Why, exactly, would it have been offensive to say the word in that context? It wouldn’t have been directed at anyone in particular, or in fact any group. The difference between avoiding the word in the context of using it as a slur against a group of people and using the word in any context is, as put by McWhorter (2019), the difference between “matters of morality” and “matters of taboo”.

If It’s Okay in One Instance, Why Not in Others?

Sharf (2019) reports on L. Jackson’s defence on the word’s usage by white people in films, particularly comparing the use of the word in the films 12 Years A Slave and his own Django Unchained. Notably, the director for Django Unchained was white and the other was black. Here, the actor criticises those that would see the former film’s use of the ‘n-word’ as having artistic merit, while the latter is seen as striking “the blackboard with his nails”. Jackson’s defence of Django was joined by co-actor Jamie Foxx, who stated “that’s the way it was back in that time”.

The Case Against Academic – or Any – Usage

In an academic setting, rather than an artistic one, McWhorter (2019) describes a situation

in which a certain professor was investigated over accusations of racism. As a white woman, she used the ‘n-word’ in the context of a discussion on the use of the word. Again, the context here was, rather than to utilise the word as a slur, to meta-linguistically discuss the word itself. The professor was subsequently investigated for this act which shows that, at least from the perspective of keeping out of trouble, Jackson's interviewer was quite sensible in his refusal.

In casual conversation, though, it is much more unanimously seen as unacceptable for a white person to use the ‘n-word’. McWhorter (2019) claims that “whites who ask, ‘[w]hy can’t we use it if they do?’ have always struck me as disingenuous”. Further, there are those such as Starkey (2017) who believe that it is simply loaded with too much history, to the point he doesn’t feel as though it should be used, stating that he “banished it from his own speech” as a way to honour the dehumanising treatment of former slaves. 

Written by Tristan Roberts

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