Q: When is it appropriate for me, a middle-aged white guy who hosts a podcast, or writes op-eds, or posts as a prominent blogger with a healthy Twitter following, to use the n-word.
Q: What if I’m singing along to Kendrick Lamar alone in my car? What about then?
A: Is the Kendrick Lamar on before or after the Wilco Spotify playlist?
Q: I want to be clear that I, personally, have no desire to use the n-word either in print or out loud, but are you considering the “use-mention distinction,” meaning that there is a difference between someone using the word as a slur, and repeating its use by someone else in a different context?
A: Are you saying that if you employ a substitute, people are likely to be confused as to what word was used in the original mention, like they might think if you use “n-word” the original person said “noodle,” or “nobody” or “nabob”?
Q: Well, no, the original word would still be pretty clear.
A: So why would it be important to use the intact slur then?
Q: Well, there’s a certain pedagogical value to using the word. If you use a euphemism, you are lessening the ugliness of the term. Doesn’t doing so whitewash (so to speak) the terrible reality of a time when it was used with impunity?
A: Yeah… nah.
A: Nah. It may seem like a reasonable distinction, but it also begins to look like an excuse to protect the “right” of some people to use the slur through a kind of loophole. Is its use necessary to communicate meaning? No, it isn’t necessary. Does using the word shock the conscience in a way that’s productive? No, not really. I mean, you do you, though. If this is a battle you want to keep having over and over, go for it. The rest of us would like to move on to more substantive debates.
Q: What could be more substantive than issues of free speech?
A: No one says you can’t say it, just that the rest of us are going to think you’re a racist dick if you contrive ways to say it without facing criticism. Speak away, but also, be prepared for lots of people to think you’re a dick and that if you insist on being a dick this way, people might get tired of working with you.
Q: What if I’m recounting a time when I memorized a hilarious Eddie Murphy routine from his “Raw” special and repeated it during lunch to great acclaim at my all-white middle school? Shouldn’t I be able to share a story about what a precocious and edgy little dude I was under the use-mention distinction?
A: Absolutely, but also be prepared for people to think that you’re a racist dick who hasn’t learned anything since he was thirteen-years-old.
Q: I voted for Obama twice! Trump is a scourge. He’s a racist! See, I said it! But shouldn’t we be worried about performative anti-racism, like banning the n-word, or seeing its mention as a de facto racist act, possibly worthy of termination? Doesn’t this undermine substantive accusations of racism?
A: No. Carving out exceptions for racist behavior is actually racism.
Q: But I swear, I’m anti-racist! I just want to make sure that if I want, I can still act out that famous Saturday Night Live sketch with Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor, where Chase uses a steadily escalating series of slurs until he reaches the n-word. That sketch is really funny!
A: Is it? In 2021? Or is it that you get a certain little zing of excitement in being able to say the word?
Q: What do you mean?
A: I mean, it’s just curious that of all the things you could choose to spend your time on, arguing about how it should be okay to use a racist slur without sanction under the use-mention distinction just seems, I don’t know, kind of silly and fucked up, right? Like, don’t you have anything better to do?
Q: But I’m just trying to make sure there isn’t a hysterical overreaction that prevents us from having difficult conversations.
A: Like when it’s okay to say the n-word?
A: Who is being hysterical here, now? The conversation doesn’t seem like it’s all that difficult. So stop saying it.
Q: Why do you think people like me are so drawn to this debate?
A: It’s about power. Some Black folks have entered your sphere and they’re saying reasonable things like, “I’m tired of having to shrug and roll my eyes when dudes spend an inordinate amount of time defending their right to use a racial slur,” and you think that this is somehow a threat to your standing at the top of the thought leader heap. Rather than give people the respect of knowing their own minds and desires and adjust accordingly, you lash out like you’re the aggrieved party.
Q: Wow, that’s fucked up.
A: You said it, not me.