That outsider could be an American time-traveler from as recently as the 1990s. Many of us still harbor a small collection of cassettes we just can’t bear to chuck—mixtapes, toddlers telling stories, etc. One of mine is the first media interview I ever did, a radio talk-show episode on the N-word, in 1995. The host was white, the other guest was as well, and we had a discussion about the origins and current usage of that word, except that we used the real one.
The idea that we would euphemize the word as “the N-word” when we were talking about it rather than using it would not have occurred to any of us. It was a perfectly ordinary interview of the period. Sheck, who is in her 60s, was mature and working during this time and thus must remember when we were not so peculiarly uptight.
There are matters of art involved, of course. Even when discussing rather than wielding the word, people—including black ones—might avoid barking out the word any more than necessary. (Or avoid writing it more than necessary, as in this very essay.) Surely, its history means that it provokes negative associations; it doesn’t sound good. Perhaps even the weird word niggardly ought to be let go. Accidentally, it just sounds too much like that other word to pass muster, especially when synonyms like stingy are so readily available. Those who use it should not be made to feel unfit for employment, as has actually happened. But it ought to be retired; in the same way, a German immigrant to America named Fahrt would discreetly change the name with all deliberate speed.
Read: Can educators ever teach the N-word?
But a white student so horrified at Sheck’s uttering the N-word within the context of its usage by a black, crusading anti-racist figure such as James Baldwin that the student reports her to the authorities? It surely felt like Doing the Right Thing—but the problem is that when Spike Lee’s film of (more or less) that title was playing in theaters, graduate students would have done no such thing.
Some will object that we moderns are more advanced than those ‘80s troglodytes, or at least that the discussion has progressed, enrichened, that justice is being better served. And I am under no illusion that this is merely a matter of a certain kind of white performative wokeness. Quite a few black people, including authors of whole books on the word, would agree that Sheck should never utter that word at all for any reason.
We might ask, though, what the reason for a diktat like that is. It conveys, certainly, a kind of power. Inevitably, here and there a nonblack person will either use the word in an unsanctioned way or, just as often, be revealed to have done so in the past. If the word is sinful even when referred to, then the ground is especially fertile for black Americans or white allies to express outrage. Enter the Teaching Moment, when we are reminded of black people’s plight in a racist nation, our history in savagery and dismissal, the power of even subliminal racist bias.