The N-word as slur vs. the N-word as a sequence of sounds

What makes the New York Times so comfortable making black people look dim?

On what Black History Month and the racial reckoning mean at the New York Times

Over the past week, the Times’ crossword puzzles have included many clues having to do with black culture and issues, and in fact have been by black constructors. A fine gesture for Black History Month.

But then the other night we learned that longtime reporter Donald McNeil, who has done groundbreaking work on the pandemic, has been fired, at 67. His sin was that on an NYT-sponsored educational trip with teenagers, he used the N-word in referring to it (as opposed to actually using the word).

Inevitably, in response to outcry over how needlessly punitive this is, his inquisitors and defenders will note that he is documented to have said some other things that suggest that he is not completely on board with what a certain educated orthodoxy considers the proper positions on race, and that he was reputed to have treated some staffers in a discriminatory way. However, if the complaints were only these, it is reasonable to suppose that he would still have his job. It was the N-word thing that pushed things over the edge, and is the focus of the letter signed by 150 staffers demanding, in effect, his head on a pole.

That is, for people like this, the N-word has gone from being a slur to having, in its mere shape and sound, a totemic taboo status directly akin to how Harry Potter characters process the name Voldemort and theatre people maintain a pox on saying “Macbeth” inside a theatre. The letter roasts McNeil for “us[ing] language that is offensive and unacceptable,” implying a string of language, a whole point or series thereof, something like a stream, a stretch – “language.” But no: they are referring to his referring to a single word.

The kinds of people who got McNeil fired think of this new obsessive policing of the N-word as a kind of strength. Their idea is “We are offended by this word, we demand that you don’t use it, and if you do use it, we are going to make sure you lose your job.” But the analogy is off here. This would be strength if the issue were the vote, or employment. Here, people are demanding the right to exhibit performative delicacy, and being abetted in it by non-black fellow travellers.

One way we know that this pox on even uttering the N-word to refer to it is that it was not the common consensus quite recently. As late as the 1990s I did a radio interview about the N-word where it was considered ordinary to utter the word to refer to it, by blacks and whites. I have in my memory endless casual sentences uttered by thoroughly enlightened, sensitive white people from the 1970s through to 2010 where they used the word to refer to it, with no one batting an eye because the difference between use and reference is so blindingly obvious. One thing I have been doing to get through the pandemic is to watch my way through the whole run of The Jeffersons (11 seasons – whew!), and in one episode white Tom objects to black George always calling him honky by asking “Suppose I called you nigger?” That was fine then, but would qualify as a Very Special Episode today on Blackish. The only difference is that what was a nasty slur in 1977 is today also treated as a taboo.

Even Times executive editor Dean Baquet understands this, one can tell. He at first retained McNeil after an apology, but has now caved to this body of ever-aggrieved Times workers. I guess after they managed to hunt out James Bennet, Bari Weiss and now McNeil, Baquet worries that he might be next. Or maybe it’s a matter of racial loyalty to him – it is not mine to know.

In any case, my own observation of this sort of thing, and conversations now and then with people who engage in it, is that the people hunting down McNeil are swelling with a certain pride in claiming that “We decide what we will tolerate,” as if this constitutes what black nationalists would term “self-determination.” But the issue is whether what is being determined for the self is good for the self in question.

Upon that, two matters require address. One is that it is only a certain mob who are making this “determination.” The idea that it is inherent to black American culture to fly to pieces at hearing the N-word used in reference is implausible at best, and slanderous at worst.

But the second and more important is that insisting on this taboo makes it look like black people are numb to the difference between usage and reference, vague on the notion of meta, given to overgeneralization rather than to making distinctions.

To wit, to get McNeil fired for using the N-word to refer to it makes black people look dumb. And not just to the Twitter trollers who will be nasty enough to actually write it down. Non-black people are thinking it nationwide and keeping it to themselves. Frankly, the illogic in this approach to the N-word is so obvious to anyone who does make distinctions that the only question is why people would not look on and guiltily wonder whether the idea that black people are less intellectually gifted is true.

Now, what people are more likely to actually say, which also gets around having to think about intelligence issues, is that the mob here is exerting their power – i.e. that they are just mean. I don’t think so – that’s too easy, and in a way as psychologically implausible as not understanding the difference between usage and reference. How many people working in those cubicles at the Times building are mean?

The reason a black person engages in this kind of inquisition is not ill-will, and it isn’t stupidity. It’s insecurity. Slavery and Jim Crow have many legacies, and one is on black psychology. People who really like themselves can’t be destroyed by someone referring to a word, even a word that has been used against them. If the blackest thing you can do is get someone canned for referring to a slur, we see that the frame of mind that famously led black kids to choose white dolls in the 1950s experiment lives on.

It’s pretty simple – if you are genuinely proud, then you spontaneously recoil from the idea that some stuff somebody says in passing can hurt you. You’d be embarrassed to engage in the transaction. If you really like yourself, it takes a hell of a lot more than some cranky stuff a Donald McNeil says one day to ruin your day, or even affect it in the slightest. And if you doubt me on that because I’m not a psychologist, I beseech you simply to seek out a psychologist and ask one.

And yet it’s “contrarian” black writers like me who are supposed to be self-hating.