Gweneth Paltrow, Jay Z and the “N word”

[The following is an excerpt from an essay in my book, “Why They Think I’m Crazy – Except When They Really Think About It” in response to a recent tweet by Gweneth Paltrow about her experience with Jay Z during a concert in Paris, France.]

If denying the holocaust can be deemed a serious crime, why can’t we as Black people “outlaw” the use of the word that was designed to paint us as less than a piece of used toilet tissue that White bigots used to wipe their asses? Our use of the word, even within a different intent or context, does not in any manner render it acceptable, no more than a Jew wearing a swastika to a Halloween party changes what it stands for. The “N-word” is forever contaminated and heinous; it is offensive to all the senses as well as to the moral sensibilities of anyone with even a half a sense of self-respect – its context notwithstanding. 

From time to time, there has been much debate and controversy about the use of the word, “N_ _ _ _ _” (written hereafter as the  “N-word”), especially in the Black community in the US. By “N-word,” I specifically refer to the word that rhymes with “bigger” and is most often pronounced by Black people as rhyming with the word, “bigga.” Either pronunciation carries the same weight1 and either pronunciation is used to refer to African American Blacks. The use of the word within the African American Black community has generated tremendous heat between the camp that believes the word to be colloquial and acceptable or demeaning depending on the context versus the camp that believes the word to be inflammatory, degrading and revolting no matter the context. Hence the question: Should Blacks embrace the word as having various shades of meaning or should we eschew it with disdain at all times?


That word conjures up an image of what many White people judged to be foul, scornful, contemptible, revolting, despicable, loathsome and evil – or stated otherwise – what those White people thought of Black people. Not Jews, not people of the First Nations, not Latinos, or other non-Whites. This term was designed to reflect many White people’s view of Blacks – all Blacks – not just unscrupulous, low-life Blacks – all Blacks no matter if they were fathers, mothers, children, lawyers, business owners, physicians, teachers, President of the United States. As long as they were Black, they were considered an “N-word.”

Yes, I understand words and their definitions can change because language is vibrant and dynamic, but that particular word has not (because it cannot) morphed into a word so different in meaning that its original meaning is lost or its definition appropriately expanded. In short, no amount of using it in a different context can rid it of it foul-smelling, feculent stain despite the fact most Whites today do not view Black people in the same way those of previous generations did.

In other words, no matter how much we as Black people use the word in a different more benign or affectionate context, its original meaning looms large in ways that cannot be ignored or obfuscated. The word cannot be sanitized because its original meaning is stamped into stone. Not even “God” – so to speak can change the meaning of that word.

Black people who use the word – whether referring to other Blacks or not – demean their own humanity and continue to give life to the original and only meaning of the word – one of contempt and scorn for all Black people. Not even the worst of the worst of Black people deserve to be called by such a word because in its origins it meant that all Blacks were less than their White counterparts or any other humans – including most animals. The word meant Blacks were less than the slimy droppings of a pigeon. It was irrelevant to the racists that Black people are no worse than White people and that White people are no better than Black people.

Consider this: History tells us that, for some Jews, the name of their “God” was considered too sacred for any one to even utter. On the opposite end of the continuum, I believe the “N-word” is too despicable for any one, especially Black people, to utter or write.

Continuing with a similar path of reasoning, it is currently a crime punishable by imprisonment, in more than a dozen European nations, to deny the holocaust. The holocaust was one of humanity’s darkest displays of raw evil. Drawing a parallel (at least in my mind): To use the “N-word” constitutes not only a flagrant minimizing of the history of slavery in White America and the subsequent Jim Crow laws, but also an overt approval of all forms of White racism against Blacks. A Black person using the word is tantamount to a Black person joining the Ku Klux Klan at best or eagerly helping them to find the rope to lynch you with, at worst.

1 For those who think the pronunciation makes a difference, I present the words “floor” versus “flo,”  “more” versus “mo” or “it came loose” versus “it came a loose.” In short, the second pronunciation is simply the “ghetto” or “ebonic” way of pronouncing the word. The meaning remains the same.

Published in: on June 13, 2012 at 5:13 AM  Leave a Comment  
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