One facet of our racial reckoning: putting a stamp of approval on pretending not to understand the difference between using it and referring to it

It has become clear over the past year that our racial reckoning has shaped attitudes about the N-word. Or, among a certain few who scare the rest of us into pretending to agree.

As someone who is both a linguist and commentator, I am in an awkward position on the N-word. The linguist describes; the commentator opines. In my new book Nine Nasty Words, which publishes tomorrow, in the chapter on the N-word I try to stick with just describing. However, many will wonder how I “feel.” I have opined here on this topic before; in anticipation of the publication of Nine Nasty Words I will share some further thoughts.

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A widely discussed documentary on James Baldwin in 2019 was carefully titled I Am Not Your Negro, as opposed to what Baldwin actually said in an interview, “I am not your nigger.” In 2019 when literature professor Laurie Scheck ventured a discussion in a class at the New School in New York on why Baldwin’s actual phrasing had been elided, she uttered the word itself – only to be reported to the administration by students in her class and narrowly avoid being fired. And then, more recently, she was indeed fired, with no compelling reason given. It is hard to imagine that continued evaluation of the N-word incident in light of the “racial reckoning” starting last summer had nothing to do with this.

It has become almost hard to keep up with the episodes of this kind of late. As I have discussed here, law professor Jason Kilborn was barred from the University of Illinois in Chicago’s campus as a threat to black students’ safety after in frustration referring to himself in satire as a “monster” in a conversation with black students intended as a healing one. The conversation’s spark? His writing “n*****” in an exam question about employment discrimination, that had bothered no one until – golly, wonder why? – this year.

About ten minutes before this, Greg Patton had been dismissed from a class he was teaching at the University of Southern California for mentioning that in Mandarin, the equivalent of the hedging “like” in English is “nèi ge, nèi ge” which translates as “that, that …” but sounds like, well, you know. Not only had Patton given the lecture countless times before with no problems, but – you couldn’t write this better – the class was on communication in global markets!! Yet the usual suspects went about for weeks claiming that Patton had committed a kind of “violence” added to the grinding burden that being black in modern America is.

And we must not forget Donald McNeil, sterling pandemic reporter, made to leave the New York Times for referring to the word -- and in a conversation with teenagers on a newspaper-sponsored educational trip. Teenagers seem to have truly imbibed the new gospel on this: I have been told not one but two anecdotes of teens condemning adults for explaining what the name of the rap group NWA stood for – and one of the adults was the teen’s mother.

Elect fans are given to dismissing such observations as mere “anecdata” that do not suggest anything afoot, but that won’t work here any better than it does with the rest of the evidence that the Elect are dimming America’s general enlightenment. There are many further cases, such as this firing and this near one -- including one coming to light just as I write this. Let us recall that about three cases of a cop killing a black boy are treated as incontrovertible evidence of America as a danger to black bodies. Okay – if you accept that, you must accept that there has been a seismic shift in the policing of the N-word over the past few years and especially lately.

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The question is why we have become so extremely sensitive about that word since the 1990s, despite that our times are so much further from the ones where whites casually levelled the term with abandon. Why are we making a finger-cross and hanging garlic in the doorway against even any semblance or suggestion of a sequence of sounds?

Supposedly because the word recalls slavery, Jim Crow and horrific abuses. But then, even black people just a few decades ago didn’t typically think this meant that one cannot utter the word even to refer to it. That’s new, and it is, quite simply, a taboo -- as in what we associate with societies vastly different from our own.

There are languages in Australia where you use a separate vocabulary with your mother-in-law, and it is taboo to use the regular word equivalents for it with her. In one of the languages, there is a general word for moving that you use when talking to your mother-in-law about going, walking, sailing and crawling. To use the regular words for these things with her would be like hauling off with a curse word in English.

This sounds quaint to us, but should not, because our treatment of the N-word is hardly different. The idea that the word is simply never to be uttered is so deeply entrenched now that it may seem odd to many people under about 40 that in times that seemed quite modern not so long ago, one could produce the sounds of the word nigger in public if you were talking about it rather than using it. With taste, of course – one didn’t go about saying it over and over. But there was an understanding that to refer to it – especially since this was usually in condemnation – was harmless. Because it was.

If you think about it, this made perfect sense. It’s today’s situation that is odd, in that suddenly we have a taboo of a kind we associate with pre-scientific indigenous societies. The word must be chased away whenever it seeps in through the cracks in the floor, just as if you pick up the phone and the Devil is on the line, you hang up. To wit, this is more evidence that Electness is a religion. The evolution in sensibility about the N-word has been an early manifestation of Elect ideology, penetrating so quickly because of the especially loaded nature of the word. It’s pretty easy to classify it as heresy for saying a word that is used as a slur; getting people fired for saying reverse racism – as happened to former San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Gary Garrels -- takes a while.

Some will despise that I am calling the new take on the word pious. But 25 years ago we all knew exactly those things about the word’s heritage, and felt modern and enlightened to, with sensible moderation, utter the word in reference rather than gesture. Under normal conditions, the etiquette would have stayed at that point. The only thing that makes that take on the word now seem backwards is a sense of outright “cover-your-mouth” taboo: i.e. religion. This performative refusal to distinguish, this embrace of the mythic, shows a take on the N-word analogous to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I call this refusal performative – i.e. a put-on – because I simply cannot believe that so many people do not see the difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to the word in the abstract. I would be disrespecting them to suppose that they don’t get this difference between, say, Fuck! as something yelled and fuck as in a word referring to sexual intercourse. They understand the difference, but see some larger value in pretending that it doesn’t exist.

In my experience, a common idea is that if we allow the word to be used in reference, there is a slippery slope from there to whites feeling comfortable hurling the slur as well. There are two problems with this point. One: for decades civilized people could use the word in reference, and yet there was no sign of the epithet coming back into style. Today’s crusaders can’t claim to be holding off some rising tide. Second: what is the sociohistorical parallel? At what point in human history has a slur been proscribed, but then returned to general usage because it was considered okay to refer to the word as opposed to use it? That many people can just imagine this happening with the N-word is not an argument, especially since it’s hard not to notice that this hypothetical scenario fits so cozily into their professionally Manichaean take on race.

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We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.

Actually, I would not be surprised if we are already at that point, given things one sees and hears these days. True to form, in the fall of 2020 at Bard College, freshmen began a campaign of shaming against a professor who read out not the word nigger but Negro in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The new idea is that even that word is profane, in being an outdated one black people no longer consider appropriate. The pretended inability to distinguish between the abusive and the antique is an indication that 2020 had been a Sunday School in Electism for these kids. They are showing that they have learned their lesson in suspending basic intelligence in favor of virtue signalling, in the face of something that would not matter a whit to most black people themselves.

Or, over the past couple of years, I have been delighted when people have shared with me the news that there is a history of, of all things, black cantors. Di shvartze khazonim, they joyously called themselves – “the black cantors” in Yiddish, that is. But lately the main person responsible for airing this story of genuine diversity as well as cross-cultural pollination, Henry Sapoznik, is under fire because certain people have decided that the Yiddish term shvartze is offensive because American Jews have used it as a grimy euphemistic sort of N-word equivalent, despite that in the world of these black cantors themselves, the word simply meant “black” neutrally and they referred to themselves with it readily.

A friend jokes to me that somewhere in America somebody is getting fired for referring to niggling details. Yet I can genuinely imagine this happening at this point, as likely can most of you. It feels like ten minutes ago that you would occasionally hear jokes about how Mandarin’s nèige sounds like the N-word, with no one imagining that anyone would sit next to two Chinese women using it twice a minute (as I recently did on a train, a regular experience in New York City) and feel insulted.

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Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren’t racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?