The N-word

Words have power.

I have known that since the day I got caught walking home from school with Billy Costello shouting out every four letter word we could think of, right up to the moment we realized my mom was standing on the front porch listening to us.

The NFL has recently begun a discussion on banning the use of the “n-word” on the field of play. A word with lots of power. While watching ESPN on Sunday there were two shows that made a strong point of this. The first was a round table discussion of players and personalities surrounding the game discussing the pros and cons of this ban. It was intriguing to see the variety of views about this subject. It ranged all the way from never should any player black or white EVER utter that appalling word. The other extreme was protecting the use of it, but only among black players. I struggled to come close to a term that other races might try and “claim” in order to gain a higher ground on the traditional understanding of the term. One term that came to mind was the recent country music phenomenon of claiming “Red Neck” as a term for good friends supposedly meaning just a nice person with traditional standards. But words have power and this did nothing to help me understand how this discussion was even worth having.

Nobody I know trying to claim “Redneck” in a positive manner is anything but a redneck in the traditional bigoted manner with nothing redeeming about the use or manner of the term. This is pretty close to where I stand with the n-word too. I like to think I understand the notion that claiming the term can take away the power from it, but it doesn’t. The redneck folks still use the n-word with the same fervor and hate it has always carried. I often pick up on the same hate when used within the black community too. I don’t think all the people using this in their community have any endearing ideas in mind when saying it to their neighbor. In my mind, the word has little or no way to be redeemed. The word has power that can’t be reduced.

The most ridicules term I could come up with that a group might try to claim in order to redeem was Nazi. But there is no redeeming that word. It will always stand for intolerance and injustice. The power of that word infuriates many even if simply read.

The show on ESPN to follow this discussion was the 30 for 30 special about James Meredith the first black student at Ole Miss, juxtaposed against the national championship of their football team that same season. I don’t think it was a coincidence that ESPN re-aired the special right after this discussion. It was in fact brilliant. I had seen this special before and it was even more emotional to watch this time as previously. It at times made me sick to be a human being and ashamed to be white. At other times, it stirred such pride in the selfless actions of others I felt tears welling up. The recent incidents on the campus of Ole Miss, including the hanging of a noose around the neck of the James Meredith statue on the campus and the hurling of the n-word at a few black students around campus, only solidified for me that there is no way conceivable in my mind for this term to be redeemed.

Words have power, sometimes power beyond anybody’s control.

For me, I guess, some terms just need to be returned to the vault never to be reclaimed or seen again. This is one such term (along with Nazi while we are at it). Our society has too much to struggle with to spend time and energy on any attempt to re-coin such ugliness. That is not to be confused with never speaking about the incidents again but dealing with them in a manner that will lead to a better humanity.

After all, at the end of the day our goal should be that we left the world just a little bit better than it was at the beginning. So let’s not let the power of words ruin it for us.