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An e-mailer goes after Andrew for, like most writers, being unwilling to write n-i-g-g-e-r:


...we have to use the word, not the various dodges: The N-Word, n------, whatever. In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it's "nigger Jim," not "African-American Jim" or "n-word Jim" or "n------ Jim" or "ni**er Jim." While in-group/out-group sensitivity should always apply in any serious discussion of prejudice and America (I would never use the word in casual conversation), we cannot stoop to such typographical dodges. It's an ugly word, but when its ugliness is the point, why dance around it with asterisks? 

A parallel: you believe in showing photos of the actual carnage war causes, dead men, women and children. This word is the linguistic equivalent of that, and when the psychological carnage caused by slurs like "faggot" and "nigger" are the very subject of your discourse, use the word.

Before I move on, I want to state--as I have before--that "nigger" is not an ugly word. I don't want to get sidetracked, but I think black people make beautiful--if ironic--use of it. ( I am particularly partial to the iconic, "Nigger, what?") Anyway, here's Andrew's response:

This is indeed almost my only act of squeamishness on this page. The reason? The word is bound up with this country's history of slavery. It is very hard to use it directly without giving some small breath of life to that evil. This is not a matter of proper use, just a very gut feeling on my part. And yes, I give it more weight than "faggot." We were tormented and destroyed from our souls outward for centuries; but we weren't as a class actually enslaved (although, of course, many slaves were also gay).

I respect this, and generally respect the motivations of white people who don't say the word. But I think, at some point, this really should end. I also think that point is now. Let me be honest--like many African-Americans, I recoil a bit whenever I hear a white person say "nigger" in any situation, and any setting. It's the hurt of an ancient wound. But I actually recoil more at all the profound, escapist variations--n**ger or "n-word" or whatever. The old hurt is still there--I know what they're referring to--but it's compounded by a sense that I am, evidently, someone who lacks the rudiments of critical thinking.

A significant part of understanding language, is understanding the context it's used in. The chair of a meeting, is not the same as the chair in your living room. Moreover, "You motherfucker!" is not "You're a motherfucker," is not "He called you a motherfucker," is not "That's my motherfucker, right there." The last is collegial and complementary, and works, at least in part, by irony. The same is true when black people use nigger, as a positive descriptive. It works because of a kind of intra-group irony.

I would not lobby for white people using such irony, anymore than I'd lobby for my right to positively describe a gay man as a faggot, or compliment a woman by calling her a bitch. I can't justify that by pointing out that gay men and women use those words, anymore than I can justify calling some a woman on the street "honey" because her husband calls her that. Words depend on relationships. My departed grandmother used to call my father "Billy." I would sooner call the coroner than call my Pops "Billy."

But that's about how words are used, and not a total ban. At some point we have to start accepting that black people have the critical faculties to distinguish between someone trying to insult us ("Niggers go home!") and someone trying to describe something to us ("The sign said "Niggers go home!") I actually believe that a lot of black people are already there.

I pulled this out because I've noticed commenters using "the N-word" or "N***r." I don't want to speak for other black folks, but I find it grating. I think, like so much in life, common sense will light the way.




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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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