The N Word

I had an interesting discussion on the way home from a conference once. I’d just done a workshop on diversity issues in a healthcare workplace, and was approached by one of the participants as I was packing away my laptop. This is usually the time when I get the best questions: the ones people are afraid to ask in front of colleagues and workmates.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“Why is it that black people think it’s OK for them to say [the N word] but not anyone else?” My interlocutor was white, and I’m Latino.

“Honestly, can’t say for sure. Probably have to take a poll. But something tells me you’re more interested in letting me know what you think about the matter.”

“I just think it’s unfair when blacks use the word but white people aren’t supposed to.”

“You really want to use the word, don’t you?”

“No, that’s not my point at all!”

“Oh, then it’s the principle of the thing – you want the freedom to be able to use that word.”

“No, not quite.”

“Well, then can we say that you see issues of justice here?”

“Yes, sort of. I just think if a word is wrong or inappropriate, then nobody should be allowed to use it. Period, the end.”

“Final answer.”

“Final answer.”

“Final solution.”

“The solution is for everybody to follow the rules, regardless of race.”

“No exceptions.”

“No. Aren’t we supposed to be a race-blind society?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know? I thought that was the point of lectures like these!”

“Workshops.”

“Whatever. So you think that’s right?”

“Are you sure you want to know what I think?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“Well, I think there’s a lot of history tied up in that word, history people like me can only hope to understand through books, on the outside, because we’ve never had to live it from the inside. At least not in the same way.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make excuses for bad behavior.”

“You know, what’s really interesting to me about conversations like this?”

“No, what?”

“Questions like this: who gets to decide what bad behavior is? Who’s invited into the conversation that decides what’s right and wrong in a particular situation? And who gets the last word?”

“Look, you’re not answering my question. Are you trying to tell me saying [the N word] is OK?”

“I think for some people, in some settings, yes. And I think for other people in other settings, no. You’ll notice, for example, that I always say ‘the N word’ instead of the word you just used.”

“So you agree with me that the word’s just not right.”

“No, I didn’t say that. What I said is it depends on the speaker and circumstance. What I also think is that the N word is an incredibly powerful one which doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to a group of people with a particular history and story to tell – about things such as the N word.”

“Sounds like you’re trying to make excuses again.”

“And it sounds to me like you’re playing judge and jury again.”

“Why? Just because I’m white and I have an opinion about the word [the N word]? Please!”

“Well to be frank, given the history I find deeply important and you find a distraction, I’m deeply suspicious of attempts on the part of white people to tell people of color what they can and can’t say.”

“Oh you guys really all stick together, don’t you?”

“Look, let me ask you this: do you feel your civil liberties are at stake in this discussion?”

“You’re damn right I do.”

“Freedom of speech, things like that?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then let me suggest that, in your gut at this very moment, are the emotional seeds that’ll connect you in a very felt way to the history I’m talking about.”

“I don’t get your point.”

“What I’m saying is, follow your outrage. If I’m right, it’s trying to speak the language of social justice, right and wrong, no?”

“All right, I’ll agree with that.”

“Then all I’m saying is that your concerns are not entirely different, in substance, from those of the people you’re criticizing.”

“Yeah, but the difference is they’re trying to take away freedoms from people like you and me.”

“And I can imagine how you feel about things like affirmative action.”

“Don’t get me started.”

“Of course. Look, I’m just about to miss my train.”

“Oh, I’m sorry – go, go.”

“Can I ask you a favor?” I handed him my card. “E-mail me so we can finish up this conversation some other time?”

“Sure.”

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