Column: Hurtful word sends double message

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 10, 2006

The truth is, an unfortunate number of us grew up hearing racial slurs fairly often.

The only “us” I can knowingly refer to in this context is the white “us,” but choice words have been used as slurs to denigrate people of all races from all sides through the years.

We can fool ourselves into thinking those days are gone until something happens, something like comedian Michael Richards’ meltdown after being heckled at a night club recently. His use of the N-word pulled it into the national spotlight again. Reaction has been strong, maybe strong enough to turn all whites away from using the N-word. Maybe strong enough to finally convince rap and hip-hop artists that throwing the N-word around in their work perpetuates a symbol of racism that would be better left to fade away, unspeakable and forgotten.


The white population falls into two camps on this subject — those who do not say “n—–” and those who say it and say it often. There is no middle ground.

The people who don’t use it sometimes forget about the other camp. We think our society has made great strides until conversations overheard at a bar or a sporting event prove otherwise and we face reality again. Some things have not changed.

Is opposing the use of the N-word political correctness? Hardly. It’s just plain human decency to shun a word that, spoken from a white mouth, means nothing but insult and prejudice, loaded with a lot of regrettable history.

* * *

I was a confused 5-year-old when I got my first inkling of how hurtful the N-word could be. Growing up in the South, I heard the word used often in reference to people on the other side of the line that definitively divided black and white in the 1960s, the people more politely referred to as “colored” back then. The N-word came across in a clearly negative way; it meant something bad.

Yet some of these very people were trusted to come into our home to cook meals, iron clothes and take care of us children on occasion. I struggled to sort it all out in 5-year-old terms — good or bad, N or not?

So one day I turned to the young woman who came to our house a couple of days each week and said, “Laverne, are you a …?”

I said it.

She probably gasped. I remember her going to a bookshelf, pulling out a dictionary and pointing to the word I had uttered. She said the definition was a mean, bad person.

She spoke sternly to me for the first time and asked a pointed question: Do you think I’m a mean, bad person?

Picture a pint-sized white child, wide-eyed and shaking her blonde head “no.”

End of memory. Beginning of wariness concerning the N-word.

* * *

The integration of public schools followed soon after that and brought its own lessons. From the adults around us, many white children heard a lot of complaints and worry. The first day I rode the bus to what had been an all-black school — now an integrated middle school — the perception gleaned from listening to my elders was that the black people had insisted we do this. I was surprised to realize, once we settled into our desks, that the black students were as uncertain about it all as we white children were.

We did not join hands and become great friends. Middle school is the age when youngsters most ardently seek acceptance and and popularity among people like themselves. But we got along, in part because we whites knew better than to repeat the hurtful words we heard elsewhere, from people who did not know our classmates.


Back then, I assumed we were marching permanently away from segregation and racial slurs, and things have gotten better. Young people today can’t understand how completely separate our worlds were — water fountains, restaurants, movie theater seating, etc. Now white and black still operate in different social circles, for the most part, but we are not the strangers to each other that signs saying “colored” and “white” mandated we be back then.

The forced togetherness of school integration didn’t “take” in all areas, though. Segregation has not truly died, and neither has the N-word.

* * *

Hearing the N-word in a conversation sets off my own set of prejudices. The word says much more about the person saying it than the one it’s directed at. Why would anyone think that word is still acceptable? It’s certainly not because they’ve been listening to rap songs.

People do what they’re taught, to a point, and parrot the words they hear around them as they grow up. At some point, though, we put away childish things and decide what is right and true for ourselves.

The N-word is only a word, but it carries the combined evils of slavery, Jim Crow laws, racial hatred and discrimination, things that are supposed to be behind us. Many of us may have grown up hearing it. But our children and grandchildren should not.


Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.