“Nigger” is not Lord Voldemort

Right. I spelled the word out. We should spell the word when discussing it. We shouldn’t have to call it “the n-word” or use other ways to disguise it. Why? Because nigger isn’t Lord Voldemort. Using it in an academic context does not give it more power, but maintaining the taboo around it does. Here’s a discussion of the same on the Language Log blog.

I’ve seen it in a few discussions now, where some who want the word to be masked in discussion accuse those who refer to it in full of being racists, or of wanting to spell it out/use it. I tried to educate myself on why it shouldn’t be spelled out in discussion, or why doing so would be offensive, and I found an article by John McWhorter in The Atlantic where he mentions the case of professor Laurie Sheck, who was investigated for using the word in a discussion about James Baldwin. He said “I am not a nigger” in a speech, and this was changed to “I Am Not Your Negro” for the title of the 2016 documentary on him. She had her class discuss why. She said the word, but did not use it as a slur. In short, McWhorter defends academic usage of the fully spelled out word, and implies that those who take offense are being hypersensitive.

Since it has become common to mask the word in online discussion, I wanted to see if there might be a good reason to do so. From what I’ve read, I’m not convinced there is. Furthermore, news sources seen as liberal (NYT, The Atlantic, NPR) do not engage in masking. What it means for you: it isn’t necessary for you to use clunky terms like “the n-word” or a row of asterisks. Referring to the full word in discussion doesn’t make you racist.

Note: I am not saying it’s okay to go around using the word.Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a good explanation on context and why it matters. However, he only covers using the words to refer to people, not saying the words to discuss their usage. For example, he wouldn’t call his wife’s friends as bitches just because she does. But he feels comfortable saying the word “bitch” and does not feel the need to call it “the b-word.” That’s all that I’m arguing here: without a target, a slur is not a slur and we should be comfortable using words (spelled out in their entirety) in discussions about them.

And if people get offended? Why, it’s the perfect chance to tell them “that’s not my religion.”

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