The ‘N’ word war

by Jim Longworth

Back when we used to have an official war on drugs, First Lady Nancy Reagan told kids to “Just Say No.” It was a naive, simplistic and unrealistic campaign, yet her message was commendable.

Too bad we can’t “Just Say No” to the “N” word, and be done with it. Actually the Detroit branch of the NAACP attempted to do something similar back in 2007 when it officially declared the “N” word dead and buried.

Problem is that not everyone attended the funeral, and the dreaded “N” word is still part of dreaded “N” word is still part of our common lexicon. Unfortunately it’s going to take more than a slogan or a publicity stunt to lay that vile word to rest.

In the mean time, young people of all races are receiving mixed messages about whether (or if) it’s okay to use the “N” word, and in what context. Chris Rock blurts the word frequently in his act, but the late great Richard Pryor abandoned it in his last years.

Professional athletes are divided on its usage, and so are black sports columnists. Mike Wilbon admits he uses the “N” word all the time with family and friends, while Stephen A. Smith, a graduate of Winston-Salem State University, abhors the word.

But if, as the cliché says, “Children are our future,” then what exactly are we teaching them about the use and abuse of this hurtful word?

A few days before Thanksgiving, the Fritz Pollard Alliance requested that the NFL impose a 15-yard penalty for abusive language on the field, and that includes the “N” word. Their recommendation comes on the heels of a season full of high-profile, racially charged incidents including one with a white player from the Philadelphia Eagles who got drunk and yelled to a crowded night club, “I’ll fight all you n***ers!” Then there’s Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin who quit the team because his white teammate bullied him and used racial slurs. And most recently, the NFL had to fine one of its own black umpires for calling a player the “N” word.

Perhaps a 15-yard penalty is a good remedy because it would serve as a constant reminder to players and fans not to use hateful language. Perhaps since kids follow pro football, the penalty will be enough to help us phase out the “N” word by the next generation. But perhaps not. I am reminded of a time not so long ago when educators, doctors, and elected officials worried that parents weren’t teaching their kids about sexually transmitted diseases and the unwanted teen pregnancies that can result from unprotected sex.

The remedy was to offer family life education classes at school. Perhaps we should consider a similar strategy for diffusing the “N” word. That’s what TV producer David E. Kelley suggested in a 2002 episode of “Boston Public.”

Sparked by a fight between two black youths because one called the other the “N” word, their white teacher took it upon himself to conduct a series of classes about the history of and controversy surrounding the “N” word. He used as his text, a book titled, N***er, by Randall Kennedy, a black Harvard law professor.

Kennedy offers a historical perspective on the “N” word (from the Latin “niger” for the color black), and how its earliest uses were descriptive not derogatory, which it became by the mid 19 th century. Kennedy points out that today when whites use the “N” word, they are “widely perceived to be showing their true colors as bigots.”

But what about blacks who use the word with each other?

In “Boston Public,” a black student paraphrases Kennedy, saying, “When blacks use the ‘N’ word, we’re taking it away from the white supremacists and making it our word. We’re taking power away from the racists.” But a black teacher in the TV episode opposed any use of the word by anyone, saying, “As long as people continue to use it, they give it life, and it lives as a symbol of hatred.”

David Kelley did a great job of demonstrating the importance of having open dialogue on this controversial word and what it represents, so I asked two area superintendents if they would allow a high school teacher to conduct a class on the “N” word.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Beverly Emory said that schools in the district “tackle this issue in a myriad of ways that directly relate to the curriculum standards… and with so many efforts to send the message of treating everyone with respect and kindness…. To make this message singularly about such a derogatory word doesn’t benefit our district.”

Guilford County Schools Superintendent Mo Green told me that while he would have reservations about discussing the “N” word in class, he would allow it, so long as the teacher “has an understanding of the historical context,” and first meets with the diversity officer and the principal so they could help him frame the discussion.

I also asked Winston-Salem Human Relations Director Wanda Allen-Abraha for input. Allen-Abraha has conducted a number of student forums, including a recent one on racism.

“By teaching the history, hurtfulness, and hatefulness surrounding the ‘N’ word, all students would gain a greater understanding that assigning the word to a particular race is, in itself, racist,” she said. Allen-Abraha also said she would be willing to sponsor or develop educational forums for the school system which would include discussions about the “N” word.

I’m just an old white guy with no right to dictate to kids of either race what words they should or shouldn’t use, but I do believe that education is the key to changing minds and habits. So let’s get those class discussions started, and let’s bring on those 15-yard penalties. !