By Tom DeSeno
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” — Juliet of the House of Capulet
I’ve written columns for many outlets over the past 15 years, and one practice I’ve always maintained is to spell out the whole “N” word when it is being used in an historical context, as in, “Slave owners referred to blacks as “N.” I do the same when quoting another person, as in, “He called him a “N.” I’ve also reserved the right to spell it out in condemnation of the word itself, as in, “It’s wrong to call anyone a “N.”
My thinking was that the “N” word is an insult when intended that way. I owe my American brothers and sisters with superior protective pigment the courtesy of not using that word as an insult, because it is worse than other words on the insult scale.
However, I don’t owe anyone a distortion of history. I don’t owe anyone less than exactitude when it comes to a quote, lest I be distorting history myself.
Yet every single editor I’ve had changes the spelled out word to the abbreviated “N word” before my column is published (I’m using the abbreviated “N” word now instead of spelling out the word, in recognition of Ricochet’s past practice).
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t use the word casually. I don’t use it in my own conversations and have not done so in decades. I think the only time I ever really used it was during a fistfight on the playground. There are different rules when throwing down — I would get called a cracker, a honky, etc. and I would yell out as many reciprocal remarks as I could. None of the white or black kids watching considered it racist. Afterwards, even the combatants did not. When you are in a fight, the rules of decorum are suspended. You’retrying to insult the guy you’re punching in the face.
Although I must say, when the full “N” word is used so much in song — and when we give those songs awards like Grammys and Oscars — appropriate use of the word becomes a blur.
As for my own thinking on spelling out the full “N” word in writing, I’ve always thought it was shaped by my coming from a predominately black community. Blacks are as smart as me. They know the difference between an historical reference, a quote, and an insult. What a great offense to think they would not!
I also loathe patronizing anyone. Many other white kids who grew up in predominantly black neighborhoods took on the role of what we then called “Wiggers,” an amalgam of two words you can guess for a white kid who dressed black, acted black, walked black (yes, there was always a walk) and talked black. With apologies to Rachel Dolezal, the white NAACP leader who has been posing as black, I never found it necessary. The black kids knew I was white and accepted me even if I spoke like a nerdy Philadelphia lawyer. Respect for one another means accepting differences, not changing them. The language differences didn’t hold true to racial lines anyway. It was individual. The black kids on the honor roll (I wasn’t) spoke more like an English gentleman than I did. So much for white or black identity. I maintain that there are economic class identities that have nothing to do with race, but that’s for another conversation.
I don’t act differently around black people. I don’t act differently around gay people. I am who I am, to quote my favorite sailor.
Yet a contrary idea crept into my thinking over the years. Perhaps it’s not just political correctness that compels us to not use the full “N” word even in an historical context. Perhaps it is politeness, manners, and courtesy.
As an analogy, there are biological words for male and female body parts, and there are some juvenile, crass colloquialisms for them that are curse words. Those are words I would not use in polite society, for it is coarse to do so.
Perhaps, through the efforts of black people who I credit with changing my thinking on this, the “N” word has been relegated to the hinterland of bad language, alongside George Carlin’s seven dirty words you can’t say on TV. Perhaps the word is now so rude, so irritating, that it is uncomfortable to hear or read. Not illegal, just simply frowned upon as a matter of courtesy and taste. I would not spell out the dirty words for the vagina even in a quote, instead using something like @#$^%. Perhaps the “N” word is simply in that category now.
I can live with that because it is not political correctness. I acknowledge social convention, and often lament when it is frivolously violated. We need community standards to be civilized, and if the community standard is that the “N” word must not be spelled out to maintain sublime human discourse, then I can live with that. That it also makes black people happy is a bonus.
Yesterday, President Barack Obama recorded a podcast with Marc Maron. In the course of making an argument about racism, he said the “N” word. Not as I typed it, mind you: he said the whole word.
So, now I’m in a quandary. I thought the way to go here was to use the abbreviated “N” word and not the whole word, even in an historical context, simply as a matter of good form. Then the nation’s chief executive used the whole word.
We are then faced with revisiting this issue. What shall we do? May we use the word in a non-insulting historical context as the President just did, or shall we not follow his lead on that?
NB — Please don’t tell me folks of one color can use the word and folks of another can’t. Feel free to say it, but it’s going to bounce right off me if you do. We’re all equal.