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The N-Word: Who Has the Right to Use It?

(Photo: Venessa Luciano)

By Earl McField

Bronx Journal Staff Writer

It makes some comedians funnier, and it makes others terribly offensive – depending on the color of their skin. It helps some artists sell more hip hop records, and it makes some people organize boycotts against such recordings. Even the way you pronounce it can make a huge difference.

It’s the N-Word, a source of growing controversy. Some say blacks should have every right to use it – but not whites. And others say that’s a huge double standard.

“White people, though, let me say this: Y’all need some nigger friends. Get you some nigger friends, just don’t ever, ever call them your nigger friends,” said comedian Katt Williams in a recent HBO special. “White people, you need your nigger friends so they can tell you when the s*** is appropriate.”

The use of the N-word has become a heated topic in American pop culture. There are black people who believe this word is hurting the African-American community, a setback to all the gains that were attained during the civil rights movement. Yet there are others who actually defend it – leaving many white people totally confused.

The polarization caused by that single word is nowhere more apparent than in the Bronx, which is not only the birthplace of hip hop, but a place where the N-word is commonly used.

“If someone were just to walk around the Bronx, there’s a big possibility they’ll hear the N-word a couple times,” said Markell Hopkins, 31, an independent filmmaker. “I can see how people think it’s a derogatory word because of its past, but it’s used so much that nobody really thinks about it.”

Shirley Arrieta, 23, a Lehman College student, believes people should indeed think about how the N-word has been used to denigrate black people throughout American history, from slavery to the civil rights movement and beyond. “People who use the word loosely don’t take the true meaning of the word into consideration, or they really just don’t care,” Arrieta said.

Actually, many black people have consciously decided not to use it.

“I think we know better than to use a word that for hundreds of years was used to degrade us as human beings,” said Marc Mitchell, 32, a security guard who noted that the N-word should never be used, even among black people.

“The N-word represents a time when blacks were treated like crap. By using the N-word today, it’s almost as if we are taking a step backward, when we should be looking forward.”

Some people say the N-word is disrespectful of those who fought for civil rights for African-Americans.

“People like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks didn’t fight and die for black people to still be calling each other this word,” said Tracie Richards, 53, a retired school teacher. “When these kids walk around disrespecting each other, they show no regard for their ancestors and it’s a shame.”

Yet there are others who say people should “just get over” the word’s negative connotations of the past.

“The N-word shouldn’t have such an impact anymore because we’ve moved past those times,” said Jose Rodriguez, 23, a Bronx resident and senior at Baruch College. He predicted that instead of a degrading term, the word has become a form of empowerment for some black people, and that instead of being banned, the word will become acceptable, just like other words that were once banned on television. “Times have changed, society’s changed,” he added. “Get over it! It’s just a word people. Just get over it!”

Stephanie Luciano, 15, a Hispanic high school student, believes the N-word “used to be offensive and stuff, but not anymore. I say it because it’s okay to say it,” she added. “I hear it in songs, on television, on the radio, in my school and on the street. If they can say it, why can’t I? Because I’m not black? I don’t say it in the bad way.”

Luciano said spelling and pronunciation makes a difference. “I know that it’s bad to say it with an ‘er’ at the end,” she said. “But as long as I’m saying it like ‘nigga’ with an ‘a’ at the end, then it’s okay.”

Some people say they sympathize with both sides of the N-word debate. “When I hear the N-word, my first reaction is always to think about who the word is coming from,” said Byron Hunter, 44, a sport television producer and Bronx community activist. “Because the word can be seen as derogatory, but also as a term of endearment in some cases, it’s hard for me to just say I have a certain feeling about it. If it comes in anger from someone, then I take it differently than someone who is a friend just trying to say hello.”

It really depends on who is using it, according to Jamal Green, 20, who finds that the N-word also comes out of his mouth. “When black people use it, it is more appropriate,” Green said. “Most of the time, when I hear the word in my neighborhood, it’s usually in the form of slang between family and friends. Everyone knows each other, so no one takes it personal. Even during a regular day, I sometimes find myself using the word when I least expect it.”

Many people argue that only blacks have the right to use the N-word. However, some Latinos feel that they also should be entitled to use it. “I don’t think I offend black people when I say the N-word, because black people say it to each other all the time,” said Marc Antonio, 10, a New York-born child of Dominican parents, noting that he refers to his friends in this manner.

But other parents will not allow it. Jeannie Baez, 40, said that while she understands that the N- word is “used as a bonding thing” among black people, when her Hispanic son started using it, she had to intercede. “My son would play around and say that word; it was like a joke to him and his friends,” Baez said. “But I wasn’t having it. I ended that real quick.”

The controversy over proper and improper use of the N-word – as well as who has the right to use it – is terribly confusing to new immigrants who are learning the English language. “The young African-Americans’ care- free and thoughtless use of the N-word is confusing for people, because everyone else does not understand when this word is offensive for African-Americans,” said Zurabi Kutateladze, 27, an immigrant from Georgia, in the former Soviet Union. “It is a racist word and I would not want to use it. Maybe the African-American youth should rethink using this word so loosely.”

Fueled by the media, the on-and-off controversy gets an occasional boost when famous white people use the N-word inappropriately. One such incident occurred in November of 2006, when white comedian Michael Richards went on a racial tirade at the Laugh Factory in West Hollywood, Calif. During this barrage of hate, Richards repeatedly used the N-word to address African- Americans in the audience. That shocking outburst stirred a lot of discussion.

“Without knowing it, this Kramer guy actually forced us to look at our selves as a whole community,” said Jeffrey Bullock, 25, a student at Manhattan Community College. “We use the N-word in rap music, in our videos, and in our neighborhoods, but as soon as some old white guy says it, it becomes this big deal. We’re all hypocrites.”

Other students feel the same way. “This incident just shows you how the N-word has been blown out of proportion in this society. It’s like a red flag … when I finally saw the [Richards] video, the N-word was the least offensive thing he said,” noted Teresa Myers, 22, a student at John Jay College.

However, there are other people who believe that Richards crossed the line simply by using a word that only black people should be allowed to use. If you are white, “there are some things you just don’t say and the N-word is one of them,” said Terrence Fisher, 27, a construction worker. “Even though a lot of black comedians say it, it’s understood that the N- word is our word. The nerve of that guy to use that word … he’s lucky I wasn’t in the audience that night.”

Richards’ poor choice of words not only damaged his credibility as a comedian but ironically helped shine the light on the derogatory nature of some rap music. Some say African-American musicians should also be held accountable for their use of the N- word.

“You can’t blame Kramer without blaming rappers and their music,” said Cristina Tillman, 23, a student at Lehman College. “They have been using the N-word since longer than I can remember and sometimes people feel like it’s okay to use it since they use it all the time.”

One possible solution, endorsed by prominent entertainment producers like Russell Simmons, is to ban the word completely from all forms of entertainment. In an article in BBC News, Simmons backed the idea of censorship in Hip Hop music and asked broadcasters and record companies to voluntarily remove, bleep or delete the word from music. He said, “The word ‘nigger’ is a racially derogatory term that disrespects the pain, suffering, history of racial oppression, and multiple forms of racism against African Americans and other people of color.”

Yet many people believe that self- restraint, instead of censorship, is the solution. “We all know what the words are when they’re bleeped out so it’s not the word itself but the thought behind it,” said Blake Murray, 23, a student at Lehman College. “Rappers should find more creative ways to express themselves without having to use that derogatory word.”

Nevertheless, at least one popular rap artist is going in the opposite, and even more controversial, direction.

Rap artist Nas, who created controversy with the title of his album Hip Hop Is Dead, may have out- done himself with his latest CD entitled Nigger.

Nas told Rolling Stone magazine that he doesn’t expect a lot of people to buy the CD. “Hopefully, people can open their minds up and lose some of their fear and deal with it,” he said.

So why would Nas put out an album that he knows might not sell?

“People are drawn to controversy,” said Brian Stanton, 28, a salesman. “Nas is smart. He knows that people will buy the album just because of the title. Yeah, some people are going to be turned off by it, but he had a similar marketing scheme for his last album and it worked.”

Other people believe Nas is making a huge mistake. “This is just another attempt to exploit the N-word in order to make a profit,” said Janice Reese, 25, a student at Lehman College. “Nas isn’t stupid. He knows that this is a hot topic right now in the media. So I think it’s all surface … he’s just trying to sell records.”

Some people are so offended by the N- word that they take the time to correct any- one who uses it. “I personally don’t use it, and if I hear someone else say it, I say something to them,” said Ervin Velez, 21, a Bronx resident and student at Mercy College. “It’s an ugly word that shouldn’t be used. Sadly we are a generation that is heavily influenced by the media and celebrities. So as long as we hear it on the radio and see it on TV or the movies, the N-word will remain an ugly part of our vocabulary.”

The following Bronx Journal reporters also contributed to this story: Cristina Bernardini, Cristhian Campaña, Venessa Luciano,Kristina Michelle Collado, Mirlenia Difo, Thomas Garcia, Richard James, Valentin Jimenez, Ekaterine Osepashvili, Victor Soto, and Shantell Ways.

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