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The N-word: think before you speak

| Wednesday, September 24, 2014

To my fellow white Notre Dame students: Saying the “N-word” is not okay.

Allow me to first provide a bit of context. Only once during my time at Notre Dame have I experienced an individual using the term in an explicitly hostile manner, where his motivation was purely racist. In accordance with what has become popular (albeit distasteful) terminology, an instance of “hard-r.” Thankfully, utterances of such a revolting slur are extremely rare and unacceptable across virtually all social circles.

However, I have observed a related trend that occurs with alarming frequency. It appears that for some, the original word’s more prevalent cousin (what has been dubbed the “soft-a”) is a perfectly acceptable mode of speech. Whether exchanged in casual conversation or simply sung along in popular songs, white students who use it rarely intend the same harm as the previous example and are often just mindlessly continuing a bad habit. Yet neither of these qualifiers warrant excuse. Perhaps we have become numb or have never even considered the origins of what is being said. Maybe the distinction of “r” and “a” is deemed significant enough. (“I would never actually say it, come on it’s just slang.”) But the sound at the end of the word does not matter, nor does the intent. Regardless of whatever justifications are offered, none are adequate.

The word emerged out of slavery and has since existed as one of the ugliest phrases in American English. During the 1970s, however, African-American comedians and rappers began to use an adapted version (“n***a”) within their own routines and music. I would argue that it has been this more recent manifestation of the term that has made its way into our daily conversations, rather than its original vitriolic form, but that makes our usage no less problematic.

The politics and attitudes of blacks’ uses of “n***a” are widely varied and continue to prompt debate within the African-American community today. Though I am absolutely no expert, it is a complex and fascinating conversation involving culture, race, art, identity and a score of other issues. While there are myriad perspectives on the matter, one conclusion is all but universally certain: it is not okay for me to use it.

From one member of the 74 percent of white students at this University to the rest, I urge you to consider such nuances. When an upper-middle class white person with virtually no extended contact with black communities casually uses the word, its connotation dramatically changes, whether we are conscious of it or not. This shift according to the word’s user is difficult to capture with words, but its existence is very real. In another attempt to harness the sentiment, consider this: Would you be comfortable saying the phrase in the presence of a fellow black student? Probably not, because we are aware of a cultural boundary and the potential of offending your company would be high. Why then should such boundaries be ignored or forgotten the rest of the time, when we know they really do exist?

These are the things that must be kept in mind when tempted to innocently toss around the term.

I aim to call attention to a pattern on our campus that is not one to be proud of. It does not matter if you don’t mean to be racist, if it’s just part of the song or if “they say it so why can’t I?” The fact of the matter is that the word evokes a long and painful legacy of brutal prejudice that lives on in our current society. Slavery has been abolished and schools have been integrated, but serious matters of racial inequality continue to plague our communities each day. Many of are overwhelmingly complicated and require equally complex solutions. This issue, however, simply demands consciousness of which we are more than capable.

Just don’t say it, and encourage your friends who do to really think about what is actually coming out of their mouths. This is not an instance of excessive “political-correctness.” Rather, it is a call for only a minute or two of pause. The connection between a seemingly innocuous phrase and vicious, persisting injustice plainly exists. The sooner we embrace that reality, the better off our entire community will be.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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