Collection: The "N" word Originally produced August 2004. Last update August 30, 2006.
In the August 2004 Minnesota Public Radio News feature The 'n-word', Reporter Brandt Williams asked, "How can one word have such power?"
People responded. Below are some of the individual stories, reactions, and commentaries we've received. Read and share your commentary, too, as we continue to add new perspectives to this collection.
The n-word should be buried
The n-word is a mask that has hidden the rich and rewarding history of African Americans and needs to be buried. African Americans need to understand that the continual use of this word only helps to bury the rich history and tradition of their race. We need to bury the word and all that it represents, not bury who we really are.
We need to embrace the gifts left to us by our ancestors, who lived and died to help shape the direction of history. "Bury that sucka" before it buries you.
H. Lewis Smith Beverly Hills, CA
Editor's note: H. Lewis Smith is the author of "Bury That Sucka!: A Scandalous Love Affair with the N-word"
Should not be spoken, by anyone
I do not believe this word should be uttered by anyone. I especially believe that African Americans should not use it no matter how they try to pretty it up.
I cannot imagine calling my child by that name and think its ok. I have family members who for some reason let it roll off there tongues effortlessly. I hung up on one for calling me that in a phone conversation we were having. It's degrading and demeaning to me. As educated people we should be able to understand that this word being tossed around undermines all that the Rosa Parks and Martin Luther Kings strived for. People have died trying to bring us above the status that this word conveys. Now its supposed to be cool? I say never.
The same relatives that think its cool go off if a white person says it. There is no double standard. It's the same regardless of whose mouth it comes from. I was trying to think of a time when I have heard white people calling each other honky or cracker or yak as a term of endearment and I can't recall it.
We are tearing down our race with what most assuredly is a powerful word. A word that can bring about death should not be spoken.
Origins in poverty and pain
In order to address the usage of the n-wor' it is imperative to start with its origin. The n-word evolved from poor whites who were upset that free slaves had the ability to live independently of the white man. Since as slaves they had done all the work, they learned all the necessary skills needed to accomplish independence. Before this time Africans were simply referred to as slaves. The poor whites rebelled against the system and created their own way of handling uppity ex-slaves by establishing the Ku Klux Klan; among other anti-establishment hate groups, and in doing so, they created a word that referred to Africans both enslaved and emancipated. The n-word's intention was to serves as a negative epithet to demean and humiliate the Africans and to brainwash them into believing they were inferior to non Africans.
African-American use of the n-word is often misconstrued for adaptation and acceptance of when white racists used it for general purposes. This disconnect is why there is a different reaction from African-Americans when used by non-African-Americans because, in our minds, it attempts to bring forth, as a reminder, of when the word was powerful. It's viewed as a slap in the face for what whites had done to Africans for over 200 years without even a slap on the wrist. A non-African-American cannot use the word publicly and not expect a reaction, however, the -disconnect here is that African-Americans don't know who's using it in private that poses yet another problem, Trust. Also non-blacks don't use the word Nigga they use Nigger.
The n-word sometimes conveys anger and disdain towards a person who has wronged another but even then, that same expression as used in the scenario (above) is still not equivalent to how non African-Americans use the n-word because they hate a person who has done nothing to them and because, unfortunately, they have been conditioned to believe that they are superior based on the color of their skin which lies as the root of the words conception.
In addition, there is the use of the word as a "term of endearment", "greeting", or to "express acceptance of commonality" or to "show love" publicly, that immediately and subconsciously translates the negative word into "positive acceptance of that individual, publicly". This meaning diminishes the power that comes with taking the oppressors attempt to further demean the African-American in a negative light publicly and transforms the word into a positive meaning for African-Americans thus minimizing the power in the word once used freely by non African-Americans publicly to humiliate and degrade them.
Finally, the new generation acronymized the word into yet another positive power revoking public nuisance that is Never Ignorant Getting Goals Accomplished. This meaning is self explanatory. Its goal is to find any and every option necessary to motivate and uplift African-Americans to be aspired to achieve to their best abilities.
However the word is not accepted by all African-Americans, to those who experienced the wrath of the word when it was powerful, will never accept the word in positive manner no matter what positive spin the younger generation places emphasis on. To them during that period in time they were brutalized and murdered simply for being African-American and most importantly that there was no justice available at all for any of the brutality that whites could muster up and put into action. In the end, as our nation grows older and passes on- the stories or memories that have been extremely painful for them to discuss go untold thus minimizing or eliminating the true reason, creation and meaning of the word for the this generation and those yet to come leaving them unscathed by it. As the old adage goes there are always two sides to a story and now that saying has been refined to: there are always two sides to a story and four sides to the truth. The disparaging inequality of acceptance of how the n-word is freely used is now a battle taking place within African-American communities that's pitting the elders against the youth and respect is the underlying overture. In the end it is just a word that has as many layers as many other words yet its origin and its present value are at the center of controversy.
Usage creates confusion
I find it offensive, but being white, find it hard to understand the usage of it by the black community.
Live Oak, FL
One word's history of fear and terror
The word 'Nigger' is so very foul because of the many related connotations it historically implies the fear, the terror, the helplessness; the chanting and shouting still ring-out. Reminders of our terrifying past are ever-present:
"Sic the dogs on the nigger"
"Lynch the nigger"
"Rape the nigger bitch"
"Burn the niggers out"
"Castrate the niggers"
"Sodomize them! Male, female and babies, humiliate, de-humanize, tar-and-feather, cut him off, cut him out, cut him up"
...and finally, "Control the niggers!"
The Europeans could teach the Arab world true terror.
A scientific view
Of course the word "nigger" should be used, especially if you aren't willing to
do without Huckleberry Finn.
As a scientist, I disdain all superstition, such as numerology and belief in
formulaic magic words and phrases like "in jesus name, amen," "this is my
body...," "one nation under god" and so on, and I'll be damned before I put up
Of course, I realize that most people are not thick-skinned scientists or
truth-tellers like Martin Luther, who commonly referred to the pope in words
such as "the fart arising from Rome."
Our law has the concept of "fighting words" as well as the unfortunate concept
of "thin skull" which would probably hold Galileo liable for hurting the pope's
feelings about the true position of the earth.
Fighting words, however, can well be used in phone conversations with
bureaucrats and "no service" utility account representatives, since there is no
possibiliby that they will punch you out. I often call them "sons of bitches"
and some such, and they always object, whereupon I pretend to apologize and ask
them "please" for a list of the words they might find offensive, which has
Of course "African Americans" aren't African Americans and "Native Americans"
aren't Native Americans any more than I am a non-native English American. This
is all PC Amerikan silliness that should be nipped in the bud.
James Kirby Austin, TX
Variations on a theme
Many variations of the 'N' word exist in our language -- some regional, some
cultural -- and others having evolved in their own spheres. One variation that I
heard the first time some years ago is probably the most striking of all because
it implies an entire substructure of humanity beyond racial characteristics.
Additionally, the context can even have a political side which was part of the
meaning intended when I first heard the term "Sand Nigger" directed toward
Jim Westberg Burnsville, MN
Words can and do hurt
The "n" word has much power; too much? That's a different question. As a woman
of western European ethnicity, but American nationality, and with family members
who are African American and friends who are African, I am sensitive to this
"Sticks and Stones," you say? I say words can and do hurt and cause
untold damage. In this age of affirmations and positive imaging being used from
everything to increasing one's self esteem, to helping a patient cope with
chemotherapy (I am personally familiar with this power) and with a renewed
interest in what some call the power of "prayer," I see nothing but harm in the
trend to dismiss as harmless mere words.
From a different perspective I offer this thought, too. After more than 20
years in a verbally abusive relationship, it finally dawned on me that being
called "Dummy" was not a term of endearment, and no -one can convince me
otherwise. The "n" word to one race is similar to the "c" word used to label a
woman. It is not acceptable. Ever, ever, ever. Allowing ourselves to become
complacent about how we see ourselves is one step in a system of abuse and
Richard Pryor and the fireman/comedian you interviewed got it right, finally. We
are men, women, friends, children, honeys, lovers, silly geese, enemies, jerks,
but we - no one - is "n".
Betsy Marvin Bloomington, MN
Use it if it makes you happy
I don't think a word is either bad or good. The intentions behind the word and
attitude can make them cross boundaries of neutrality.
The word 'nigger' to me means a slave. In Yoko's song woman is the nigger of the
world; that is her definition -- slave. To be a slave to anyone is never a
I think to label one word worse than any other is the beginning of the end of
freedom of speech. Before long there will be a list of words.
What about the word gentile? The only language that separates non-Jews from Jews.
I find the word, gentile, very isolating and non welcoming, yet I believe the
Jewish people have a right to label non-Jews if that is what makes them happy.
Judith Mari Cedarburg, WI
Use it only in historical context
I don't know if it's just white liberal guilt, but I can't even type the word
without getting chills.
My opinion is that the word should be used in a historical context only and that
elementary, middle, and high school students should be educated on the sickness
and pervasiveness of hate in America and the damage it does to the American
psyche. As for common usage, I feel the argument sometimes used within the
African-American community that using the word removes it's sting is merely
serving to keep the undercurrent of hatred alive and legitimizes it as a racial
and ethnic slur.
I was out at the Red Sea listening to music one Friday night and had a drunken
Somali gentleman insist to me that he was not my enemy because he was a "good
Christian ni**er". Sadly, that is a quote. Later I asked a friend about it and
he explained to me that within the community, some non-Muslim Somali men use it
to try and fit in, completely oblivious to the word's shameful history.
History is doomed to repeat itself when ignorance holds sway. All of the
discussion about whether a word holds undue power is moot. My personal belief is
that in the United States we continue to subjugate non-Europeans, we simply
replaced iron chains with economic policy.
I am a white man and I choose to shave my head as a personal preference and not
a political view. In a twist of irony I find amusing, most white people I meet
assume that I am a racist. In contrast, black men walk up to me and ask me point
blank why I shave and those conversations invariably end in an embrace or a