October 19, 2007

N-word, please

76Richard_Pryor_that_nigger_s_crazy_cover.jpg Here's a new twist in our continuing crusade against banning offensive words from newspapers.

Nas confirms album title will be epithet

The rapper told MTV News that he would indeed be naming his new album after the N-word. And he denied earlier reports that the album's title would be spelled "N---a," considered in some circles a less inflammatory epithet.

What I want to address is not whether Nas or anyone else ought to use the word nigger in the first place. The issue is, once the word nigger becomes part of a news story, should the media avoid using it in its reporting?

One could argue that the AP doesn't really need to use the word for readers to know what it's talking about. But at the same time, it's hard to see how the media can conduct a serious, adult conversation about an album title when it can't even bring itself to say what the title is. I'm not all that familiar with the Nas, so I'm only taking his word for it that he has a serious intent here, but if that is indeed the case, it seems to me that the press needs to deal with this intellectual provocation in the form in which it actually exists, not in some sanitized form in which Jesse Jackson would prefer that it exist. To put it terms the baby boomers who run the media can understand, imagine trying to discuss John Lennon's "Woman is the N-Word of the World" or Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me N-Word, Whitey." It's simply not the discussion the artist wants to have. The power of the word is the whole damn point.

And it's not even clear that the euphemism isn't confusing in this case. The AP writes that "The use of the N-word is common in rap." But is it? Nigga is common, but Nigger is less so, which is precisely why Nas's choice is causing a commotion (whereas an album in 2007 titled Niggaz4Life might not). By adopting a style that makes it impossible to distinguish between these two quite different words, the AP makes the news harder to understand.

Given that the paragraph quoted indicates that the wire service is OK with n---a (and, presumably n----r) it would probably be better, at the very least, if they used that throughout, rather than the cutesy circumlocution the N-word. As far as I can tell, the N-word is nothing but a way for white people to be able to say nigger without feeling guilty and uncomfortable. Sorry, but that's exactly how white people should feel when they use a racial epithet. It's not the media's job to let them off that hook.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


You probably considered this particular irony obvious, but I'm going to make it explicit anyway, as is my wont.

the album's title would be spelled "N---a,"

Why would anyone have possibly objected to an album whose title was spelled "N---a"? I guess it's offensive in its ambiguity, but hey, it's better than, say, "NIGGA".

Yes, in a sentence addressing the spelling of the word, removing half the letters is a bit like giving the bylined journalist a lobotomy before he writes the story.

Thank you so much for drawing attention to this, I hadn't really given it much thought until coming to this blog.

Honky, please!

As the N.Y. Times might say this is a lot of
barnyard epithet. Most career editors at AP and such live in fear that they are going to step on a language landmine.(Ask a Latino or better yet a Mexican American, or perhaps someone of Hispanic descent.)

I had an editor who refused to use "deaf" because it might offend the "hearing impaired." I told him he was being a weasel, but he didn't seem to hear me.

As for socially acceptable ways for white people to say "nigger," my (least) favorite is the term "white trash." Think about the implications of the term "white trash" for a bit. It's sort of inescapable once you see it.

Martin, I've found myself mentioning that to quite a few people over the years and have been dismayed how many people hadn't thought of it that way. (I say, "why do you call a male nurse a 'male' nurse?...")

Good to see someone else bring it up for a change!

Wait, "male nurse" is just funny.

For my part, eleven days later, I'm glad to see I'm not alone on that either.

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