A healthy debate is raging over whether the National Football League should adopt a rule calling for a 15-yard penalty for use of the N-word.
This debate highlights the grey area between in-group and out-group language.
African-American players who drop the N-bomb in the locker room and on the field claim they are using it as a term of endearment.
Among blacks, the division is generational. Young blacks don’t see the big deal, even arguing that they’re claiming the word as their own. Older blacks, who lived through segregation and were active in the civil rights era, would rather bury the word in the same cemetery as Jim Crow and Lester Maddox.
Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito, who is accused of bullying a black former teammate, frequently used the N-word in the locker room. His actions were publicly defended by other African-American teammates, one referring to Incognito as an “honorary black.”
The paradox of a slur isn’t just a problem with African Americans. Nor is the recasting of a slur as part of in-group empowerment.
For example, Heeb Magazine launched in 2001 and billed itself as “The New Jew Review” for the hipster set. In 2002, founding editor Jennifer Bleyer told the Boston Globe that she saw a parallel in her use of the ethnic slur “heeb” and African Americans using the N-word and homosexuals reclaiming “queer.” Not everyone was happy, with Bleyer getting blasted by the Anti-Defamation League.
Similarly, gay activists such as Dan Savage have used a derogatory term for homosexual males and found themselves at odds with their older compatriots.
And since 1996, a group of feminists has been publishing a magazine called Bitch. “We stand firm in our belief that if we choose to reappropriate the word, it loses its power to hurt us,” the Bitch website says.
But the problem is, these slur words still sting when members who aren’t in the in-group use them in their traditional, hurtful way.
The National Football League is a private enterprise with a very public face. It has the right to regulate its workspaces. Some may believe the locker room and even the playing field to be sacrosanct, but even sacred communities have rules they must abide.
I’m no scold, but as I’ve gotten older, I find the ubiquitous use of the N-word in everyday language distasteful. So did performer Richard Pryor, who stopped dropping the word after he visited Africa and realized there was nothing positive or even funny about a word that personifies the low ideas others had about black people.
While I may understand the youthful naivete in wanting to claim the N-word, the notion is false, unequivocally false. Its root delivers a most bitter fruit. Frankly, I can’t think of a worse word to describe the tight bond of friendship. I can think of 100 words, in a multitude of languages, that do.
Fred McKissack Jr. is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.