Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Doing things with the N-word

Should we stop using the N-word? And when I say “we,” I mean all of my readers and possible readers (both black and non-black). Should we stop using the N-word? I’m not going to answer this question here, but suggest a better strategy for answering it.

Many of the N-word’s opponents point to the historical and current use of the word to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. Briefly, the argument runs like this: Throughout American history, the N-word has been used to degrade and demean African-Americans. Its use has been (and continues to be) a source of pain, rage and sadness for African-Americans. Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.

This argument,in various forms, has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But it shouldn’t have.

The argument, it seems, assumes that if a word is ever used to cause harm, its use should be prohibited. But this can’t be right. If one were to abide by this principle, one would have to also prohibit the use “boy,” (“Come here boy” (said to a black man) “girl,” (“You’re just a girl, what do you know?”) “trash” (“You’re all just a bunch of trash.”) and “tool” (“You’re such a tool.”). Clearly this principle can’t be true. We shouldn’t prohibit the use of a word just because it is sometimes used to cause harm.

Reflecting on the harmful uses of the word will not alone allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the N-word.

Other opponents of the N-word point to the word’s meaning to justify the claim that we should stop using the word. An argument along these lines could be understood as follows: The N-word just means something like “one who is lazy, stupid and generally genetically inferior because of his or her African ancestry.” No person (or group) fits this description. If this is the case, to address person (or group) by using the N-word is necessarily to harm that person (or group). Therefore, we should stop using the N-word.

This argument too has convinced many to stop using the N-word. But, like the previous argument, it shouldn’t have.

The argument assumes that the N-word has only one meaning. But this doesn’t seem right. If the N-word had only one meaning, then one would have to view the following statements as necessarily false: “That N-word works really hard,” “That N-word is crazy smart.” But these statements aren’t necessarily false. If these statements aren’t necessarily false, then the N-word doesn’t just mean “one who is lazy, stupid….”

If the N-word just meant “one who is lazy, stupid…” then we would have good reason to stop using the N-word. But the N-word, it seems, doesn’t just mean this. The word seems to have a least one alternative meaning.

So, neither reflecting on the harmful uses of the word nor attempting to pin down the meaning of the word will not allow us to come to an answer to the question of whether we should stop using the word. So, how should we go about answering the question?

My suggestion is this. To answer the question “Should we stop using the N-word?” we should focus our attention on the question “What do we (and what can we) do with the N-word and do we want to do any of these things?”

Obviously, the things we do can be described in many ways. Think about my marking my 2008 presidential ballot for Barack Obama. This action can be described in many ways. I then voted for Barak Obama and bubbled in a space on a ballot card and moved my pencil and moved my hand and helped to elect the first black president and voted in person for the first time. In marking my ballot for Obama, I also did all of these other things.

Likewise, on any occasion on which one uses the N-word, one can be described as doing any number of things. A white bigot, in saying “I hate N-words”, in a situation in which African-Americans can hear his words, expresses his hatred toward African-Americans and offends the African-Americans within earshot and signals to the other possible bigots in the room that he is on their side and brings to the surface the pain that those African-Americans associate with the word and shows himself to be someone that should not be allowed to occupy a position of power and influence. The white bigot would do all of these things in using the N-word on this occasion.

And, clearly, an African-American male, in saying “I love y’all N-words” to his African-American friends, also does many things. He tells his friends that he loves them and draws a connection between his love for his friends and that fact that his friends are African-American and, possibly, offends those friends who do not like to be referred to by the N-word.

What is done in using the N-word is (at least partially) a function of the situation in which the word is used. And, as such, we must think about the various situations in which we use (or could use) the N-word and what we do (or would thus do) in using the N-word, to determine whether or not we should continue to use the N-word.

And if we decide that we should continue to use the word, reflection on what is done in using the word on various occasions will allow us to determine when its use would be appropriate.

As I mentioned, I do not answer the larger question here. I’ll leave this task up to you.


  1. nice post Brandon. here are a couple of things to consider. one argument against using the n-word you didn't raise is what i call the bill cosby view, which says attempts by blacks to appropriate the n-word don't succeed in achieving some positive status, but participate in their own degradation. you go on to suggest a pluralist speech act type of view, saying there are a number of things people could be doing with utterances of the n-word. what you left open was how these various speech acts relate to one another. given what you've said so far, african americans who use the word may derogate and express camaraderie or solidarity simultaneously. if so, then does the cosby argument show the n-word shouldn't be used?

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  3. with respect to "utterance" talk, i don't see what distinction you're really making yet since on one reading "what people do with a word" = 'utterance'.

    second, i agree that it's not sensible to talk about stopping use of the word. that would be an impossible task. but it is sensible to talk about the morality of n word use, which is what i take B to be discussing. i also understood the point to be that context plays a significant role in determining what is done with the word, which seems right to some extent. but it's not clear this rules out the Cosby worry yet, unless you can show there aren't multiple speech acts taking place simultaneously, one of which is always an act of derogation.

  4. Well, I think it would be easy to show that there are some uses (and not mere mentions) of the N-word that cannot be described as acts of derogation.

    For example, say I run into a friend who I haven't seen in years. I say "N-word, I haven't seen you in years. You look great."

    Is it possible to describe my act here as an act of derogation?

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  7. @ Brandon: i wouldn't describe that as an act of derogation, but the cosby crowd would, or at least as part of what is happening. are you suggesting that intention is sufficient to determine what one does, so that in saying "what's up n word" with a particular intent, that determines the speech act performed? i think there are good reasons to reject that view.

    @ Dustin: on the point about utterance talk, fair enough. no need to argue about matters of personal taste :)

    to your second point about there being non-derogatory uses of the n word, you get no argument from me. i was merely posing a challenge from a view B didn't consider in the original post.

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  9. Luvell, I agree that the intent with which a speech act is performed determines what speech act(s)were performed.

    What speech act is perfomed is something to be decided by the community who describes the act.

    But, it seems hard to think of a description under which the act of one individual refering to another as N (assuming that both persons are okay with that use of the word) can be described as an act of derogation.

    But, yes, that is a view that I should consider.

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  11. Yes. Good catch. I meant to negate the first. Speaker intent does not determine which speech act is performed.

  12. @ Dustin: i'm not sure admitting non-derogatory uses shows that the question whether they should be used is moot. some people argue the n word, though not derogatory when used by black people (at least in certain situations), should still not be used because it may make others more comfortable with it and increase derogatory attitudes towards blacks.
    on personal and non-personal taste, i don't think anything i said commits me to that distinction. the word can also do work by assuming a distinction between personal taste and objective fact, where 'fact' refers to empirical phenomena, or at least mind-independent entities. i'm not sure such a category exists, but conceptually it's a possibility. also, i'm usually skeptical of judgments of aesthetic superiority when it comes to language. i fear many of those judgments are conditioned by things like class, race, or gender.
    however, i think i broadly agree with your sentiments about the importance of value theory. i work mainly in philosophy of language and find it necessary to include considerations about value judgments in discussions of theories of meaning.

    @ Brandon: yeah, i'm pretty sympathetic to your line about finding such a description. and in fact, i think the cosby view is wrong. i'm writing a draft of my chapter on this issue currently. when it's presentable i'd like to send it to you to get your thoughts.

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  14. Words like "boy," "girl," and "tool" have various meanings that are, historically, neither exclusively derogatory/demeaning nor specifically indicative of a group of people defined by physical characteristics that most commonly suggest their presumed inhumanity. That's why many consider it the worst word in the English language.