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The N-word: Our language's most controversial word is evolving, though its racial divisiveness remains


Jason Browne



You can't put it in a box. You can't label it as one thing. You can't deny it and you can't kill it. 


But can you use it? 


The debate rises and falls, moving to the back of our social conscience until something or someone brings it back to the front: The N-word. 


"The N-word holds a unique position in the English language," writes the Southern Poverty Law Center's Sean Price. "On one hand, it's so taboo that it is not even whispered in polite company. On the other hand, teenagers use the word so frequently in so many ways that it has taken on new life beyond its origins as an insult." 


Should it be allowed as art in stand-up comedy or hip-hop music? Should it be uniformly condemned as racist and buried, as the NAACP attempted to do in 2007? Does its use in art drive its use in conversation, or does its use on the street necessitate its reflection in art? 


Discussion may not settle the answers to these questions, but it does offer some insight into the diversity of feelings regarding the term. Several people around Columbus were happy to voice their opinions, although, due to the controversial nature of the topic, they declined to give their names. 


First, no sweeping generalizations can be made. For instance, one would be as wrong to say all young black people use the word as they would to say all older white people use it. Among black people who do use the word, it isn't always a term of endearment. Among white people, it isn't always used as an insult. 


Enemies and allies of the term seem to agree on one point, however: The history of the word isn't fully understood by young people who use the term most frequently. 




Roots in slavery 


The Atlantic slave trade, the Civil War and Reconstruction are core curriculum for U.S. History and Mississippi Studies in public schools, but one expert who analyzes Mississippi Department of Education standardized test results says retention on those topics tends to be spotty. 


"Some people don't know what the N-word really means," said Donyell Willis, 16, a student at Pascagoula High School, who was in Walmart with his brother Kylen Willis, 14. "I know some of it, but not most of it, because my grandma tells us all the time." 


However, when pressed to explain the history of the word, neither Donyell nor Kylen could recall any specifics. 


Multiple theories exist regarding the history of the N-word. The most popular suggests it evolved from negro -- the Spanish word for black. Another holds that the definition of the word niggard, meaning a stingy or miserly person, was adapted to include laziness or loutish behavior often attributed to slaves. 


Some theories suggest the N-word was used casually and often without malicious intent, but Dr. Stephen Middleton, a history professor and director of African-American studies at Mississippi State University, says the word was always intended to dehumanize African slaves. 


"When Africans were brought to this country they were from ethnic groups or kingdoms, such as Fulani, Hausa or Ibo. When Europeans brought diverse groups into the Americas, the erasure of identity began. Whites would regard these individuals by another name: black, negro is simply Spanish for black," said Middleton. "As time went on with the corruption of this term, people used it in disparaging ways. Negro meant bad. To further disparage (blacks), whites began to refer to them as n-----s." 


Middleton says legal documents from the period of slavery generally didn't use the N-word to describe Africans, but it was a ubiquitous slang term. 


Authors quoting black slaves, sharecroppers or prisoners in the late 1800s and early 1900s often cite the use of the N-word by black people to describe black people. Such usage may seem innocuous to modern readers, but Middleton says the word has always carried a negative stigma. 


"It is a term of violence and reminiscent of lynchings, black laws and efforts to expel black people. It was never an acceptable term and if used it was generally out of anger. If someone is imprisoned, he might refer to another prisoner as a convict," he said. 


Middleton estimates African-Americans began casual use of the N-word around the 1950s and that it "probably had something to do with civil rights and self assertion." 


Eric Harlan, a communication professor at Mississippi University for Women, studies labels and the way humans see themselves and others. He says the identification young black men felt with the N-word as a sort of reclamation of the term from racist white people received mainstream notice in the 1970s when it was commonly used by provocative stand-up comedians such as Richard Pryor, but took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s when it came into vogue via hardcore hip-hop groups like N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes). 


"I'm not sure if it was an extension of the way black youth were already speaking or if it was intentional (on behalf of the artists) to take the (term's) power from the white man," Harlan said. 


A similar trend, he says, can be seen in gay and lesbian culture whereby terms which remain derogatory are used freely by gays to describe other gays. 




Whites use word in new way 


While use of the N-word has long been used as a barometer of racism in white individuals, the frequent use of the word by generations of black people in conversation and popular culture has removed enough of the social stigma for some young white people to become comfortable using it, even to describe black friends. 


"I have a lot of white friends and they call me that," said Carlos Ivy, 24, an East Mississippi Community College student from Starkville. "If you're trying to make fun of me, it's offensive. But if we're just being boys and playing around, then it's OK." 


However, the rule of thumb for whites remains to refrain from using the term in front of blacks unless acceptance is well established. 


"They never say it around me," said a black junior from Heritage Academy, referring to his white classmates. 


Some older white citizens in Mississippi, long stereotyped as the most racist in the country, have shelved the term in favor of acceptance of integration. 


"Overall, I think prejudice has gone to the back pocket," said a 58-year-old white woman who did not wish to be named. "I think a lot of opinions have changed. People realize (prejudice) is so backwards that progress just can't happen as long as you keep living in the past." 


MUW's Harlan says the N-word has come a long way form its hateful beginnings and will likely continue to evolve. 


"I don't believe the word will ever go away, but I do see it meaning something completely different in two or three generations. What that will be, I don't know," he said. 


For now, the N-word remains on the bad words list -- even though its use is apparently on the rise, at least among young people. A recent survey of Jackson-area high-schoolers by The Clarion-Ledger found that 90 percent of the black respondents use the word, while white students said 30 percent or more of their peers used it regularly. 


"(Students) don't use it in front of someone they respect," said Kenneth McFarland, student coordinator for Project Lace Up, an after-school tutoring program at Lee Middle School, which serves hundreds of children in the Columbus Municipal School District. "If they're with their friends or their boys, they use it as a term of endearment. But it's used in several different ways. It can be used out of frustration or anger. The word has taken on a life of its own." 




Lingering hate 


Despite a new trend in the N-word's use among white people, the old use is far from dead. 


Mayor Robert Smith tells the story of a voicemail he received after taking office. One Friday, when City Hall was closed, the manager of a popular local business called to inquire about the suspensions of a Columbus police officer and a fireman. Smith says the caller was cordial enough during the message, but when the caller thought he had ended the call on h




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Reader Comments

Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/25/2010 7:31:00 AM:



Article Comment shwilliams commented at 7/25/2010 8:31:00 AM:

Bottom line to this word is according who is using it. Your race determines if the N word is a friendly gesture or an insult.Racism is never positive for any society.White people should not call black people derogatory names and neither should black people call white people the C word (cracker). Recently,a radical black panther group said he hated all white people(crackers)screaming his hate in the street. Every man created equal. What is good for one race should be equal for all. Our strength as a nation is weakened when we allow the color of skin to divide us. There are many races across the world that would like to see America fall. When the world sees the United States divided they see an opportunity.


Article Comment fredpd commented at 7/25/2010 10:10:00 AM:

i read on the internet that when the irish people came from another country as immigrants, they were strapped to the ship and made ot row thwe boat and called nigger, or whatever you wanta call that word, they were beatren and called thie word so as i understand, it is not just fopr a black or dark skin person, it is to degrade a person and be calling him or her a name to make them feel less than someone else, now , we know all mena are as good as the other but some are tryed to make think they are less,


Article Comment jls commented at 7/25/2010 10:28:00 AM:

This was really a pretty good, objectively written article; in my opinion, the writer honestly attempted to look at the situation from a number of different angles and was able to do so without showing bias. Well done.


Article Comment outside the box commented at 7/25/2010 11:38:00 AM:

I often use the N word, always ending in A and not in ER. It is basically interchangeable with the word "man" or "person", and I use it to refer to people of all races and even some women, mostly younger adults, but not children or senior citizens.

Really, the word is not really a term of endearment, but is used to describe people, usually poor Blacks, who see themselves as cultural opposites to majority WASP culture.

In this sense, those who use the word use it proudly, because they are happy to be different from the WASP culture they view as condescending, racist, boring, uptight, corny, greedy, etc. Also, those who use the N word in this way have mostly been excluded, criticized, and demonized by majority WASP society due to socio-economic factors and would probably disfavor working a 9 to 5 job in a cubicle and being forced to dress, talk, and act in a way that is unnatural to them in order to stay gain/keep employment.

Hence, poor people use the word more often than those who have achieved some climb on the corporate/job ladder. Therefore, a Black drug dealer is proud to use the N word, but President Obama must publicly despise the word if he wants to keep his job.


Article Comment kat commented at 7/25/2010 12:28:00 PM:

I don't like the word and I don't care which race is using it. I grew up in Alabama and it was NOT a term of endearment. It has never been allowed to be used in my home and never will be. Putting an "a" on the end instead of "er" doesn't make it right.

The article was very well written and very informative- thanks CD.


Article Comment thom geiger commented at 7/25/2010 1:36:00 PM:

I won't post my personal opinion of this article on the Dispatch web site, but anyone can read it anonymously at

If anyone has a problem with me personally or my personal opinion, they aren't forced to read it.


Article Comment rusty commented at 7/25/2010 1:52:00 PM:

Just another example of the biggots in this county and state. It's okay if someone from that race says it but not another??? That's stupid. This is another prime example of the complete breakdown of morals in the black community. Calling yourself "African" - Americans is adding fuel to the fire (racism)! Why must you seperate yourself?? Where you born in Africa??? Why can't you just call yourselves Americans? I don't go around calling myself a Welsh-American. You're black. He's white. Who cares!!!!!


Article Comment doj commented at 7/25/2010 2:06:00 PM:

Thom -- don't work.


Article Comment doj commented at 7/25/2010 2:19:00 PM:

Whoops! Sorry! It worked this time. My bad!


Article Comment mississippian commented at 7/25/2010 2:38:00 PM:

Very one sided. The writer stated "Whites use word in new way" but never put in a section on how "Blacks use the word". If you are going to write on a subject, cover all the bases. Blacks use the N----R all the time in daily conversations.


Article Comment blatch commented at 7/25/2010 7:46:00 PM:

I would like Robert Smith to prove that conversation happened. Why would he send the chief of police to visit someone about a word he doesn't like? Scary.

Robert, please tell us what you do and don't like so that we don't do or say something that displeases you. Ok?


Article Comment justin smith iii commented at 7/26/2010 12:41:00 AM:

Disturbing. I mean, we all know the Mayor has been using the CPD as his own SS troops for awhile now, but it must really please him to be able to send the white police chief out to knock on your door! And for him to brag about doing it!
He really must not have a conscience over unarmed young men trying to run from him. Such a shame! And I hope the lawyers are taking note of his openness of running the CPD around.


Article Comment sharp nasal kent commented at 7/26/2010 8:17:00 AM:

Why would he send the chief of police to visit someone about a word he doesn't like?

I think it was because the guy was asking why a police officer was suspended, not because of the word. Although the article could certainly be more clear.


Article Comment doj commented at 7/26/2010 8:21:00 AM:

"the manager of a popular local business called to inquire about the suspensions of a Columbus police officer and a fireman." So the mayor sent the police chief to answer the man's question. SO?????. It's tripe like this article and its comments that keep stirring up the conflict between the races. But, its the CD. What did you expect???


Article Comment raymond commented at 7/26/2010 8:43:00 AM:

It means different things to different people. Some think the word fits those who like to wear pants way too big in the waist so they have to walk bow legged or hold them up with one hand. Or those who like to show everybody they dirty underwear. Others think it's those who like to throw their trash onto the streets of Columbus, etc. You decide.


Article Comment lance commented at 7/26/2010 12:39:00 PM:

@ outside the box, So you are saying they dislike people who wear proper fitting clothes, take self responsibility, and can keep a job that requires an education? I understand now. Who would ever want to be that type of person? The only thing that throws me off is the whole boring, uptight, corny, greedy WASP steretype you mentioned. That sounds more like the Jewish steretype to me.


Article Comment blatch commented at 7/26/2010 9:31:00 PM:

@sharp. Good point.


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