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If A Black Newspaper Uses the N-Word, Is It Still Wrong?

I've known Chicago Defender executive editor Roland Martin for years, and he's a talented, brash, in-your-face brother who knows sometimes the best way to make a point is to make a splash.

Which is why I wasn't entirely surprised to hear Brother Roland had set tongues wagging yesterday with his cover for Chicago's venerated black newspaper, which included the word, "Nigger."

The actual headline, according to Editor and Publisher, was "TAKE A STAND. Black America, isn't it about time we made up our mind about the word nigger?"

The headline and subhead were an incendiary introduction to a more conventional Associated Press story about the implications of falling taboos about use of the n-word, including a defendant in an assault case who is trying to avoid being charged with a hate crime by saying "nigger" is no longer a racial slur. (somehow, perhaps with more than a few well-placed dollars, he got Randall Kennedy, author of the book Nigger to testify on his behalf)

Even E&P's coverage of Roland's aggressive move unsettled some: The trade magazine chose as its headline, "Black Daily Shocks Many With Front-Page 'Nigger' Headline," printing the racial slur rather than euphemizing it, as so many traditional news publications do.

E&P's story says Roland "thought the headline would finally spark a debate the word in the African-American community" about a word that is used variously as an insult and a term of endearment.

What I think Roland did was get a bunch of publicity and reader attention by slapping a jolting headline on a story that broke little new ground.

It didn't really take Roland's wire story and column to spark a debate among black people on this issue. It's something black folks are always talking about, especially those of us who straddle the different worlds of white and black America. Some have decided to never use it, others have accepted that curious double standard where we use it ourselves and deny it for non-black people.

But that's nothing new. Gay people call each other the three-letter f-word, women call each other the c-word, Irish people crack drunk jokes and Jewish comics spend hours on their lack of athletic prowess and suffocating mothers.

People use terms about themselves and their own groups that would be considered horribly insensitive if used by someone outside the group all the time. Why is it such a big deal when black people do it?

Frankly, I think it is time black people disengaged from this phony debate. Yes, many black people have a double standard about use of the word nigger, white America. Get over it. You got to use it for 400 years; it's time to leave it alone for our expert utilization. (Roland has written a column saying he won't use it anymore; wonder if that extends to his headline writers?)

And maybe the next time somebody decides to shock readers by placing a racial epithet on their front page, people won't react so predictably.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:36pm]


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