A reader writes:
I have to ask why you have repeatedly put asterisks in the word "nigger" while keeping "faggot" uncensored? Your quotation marks are enough. When I teach American literature, I always have to do a lecture on the proper use of racist language in classroom discussion and papers.
I give an overview of the history of the word in question, examine how it was used to dehumanize slaves and their descendants to justify one man owning another in a nation where "all men are created equal," and then make damn clear that whenever we use the word in a paper or class discussion, it's in quotation marks. We're exploring, in part, what the word means, how it signifies in conversations about American identity, how it marginalizes and how it can perhaps be re-claimed.
But 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.
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).