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Ernest Hooper: Rethinking a racial epithet

When it comes to the n-word, I want to trust those in the next generation who insist the horrid hatred the word represents to so many can be erased.

I want to hope that their attempts to defuse its explosiveness will succeed. I want to believe integration's impact on yet another generation will continue to improve race relations.

But I still won't use the n-word.

Earlier this year, I wrote in a column that if more students studied the history of the n-word, they might be less inclined to let it evolve into some kind of warped term of endearment.

Sickles High School English teacher Ron Medvin challenged his students to send me responses, and they delivered a provocative stack of letters. Generally speaking, about a third agreed it shouldn't be used but conceded they hear it daily in hip-hop music and the hallways of their school.

Another one-third expressed mixed emotions. They understood why I detest the word but remain unfazed about hearing it in their personal lives.

And about one-third argued the times have changed, the word has evolved and the youth of today will move forward without the controversy.

"Even black people my age call each other the n-word without getting offended in any way, shape or form," wrote sophomore Rebecca Watkin. "Our generation is the future and by the looks of it, the n-word is going to lose its effect and people will be using it in their normal, everyday language."

Others explained how they can live with the rules of usage that have emerged. First, blacks can use it when referring to each other, provided that they say it with an "a" at the end instead of "er." Second, some whites can use it in mixed company, but only after they have earned the respect of their black peers.

Third, it's perfectly acceptable in today's music. In fact, they argue the hip-hop artists lead the campaign to change the word's meaning.

"I prefer it in a song," wrote sophomore Zach Pullaro. "The word only has power when you give it power. I do not give the word power. To me, it's just a word. If you ... had never heard the n-word used so publicly, you most likely would have never written this article. That fact that you did take time out of your life to write about this has made music artists richer and 'cool kids' cooler."

I wondered if they were right. I worried that perhaps I'm too sensitive.

Then I heard Gilbert King, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Devil in the Grove, speak at the George Edgecomb Bar Scholarship Dinner last week. King explained the climate of the late 1940s and how racists lynched black U.S. soldiers because they protested Jim Crow laws after tasting freedom in Europe during World War II by continuing to wear their uniforms.

He explained that white families dressed their kids in their Sunday best and picnicked at the lynchings.

He described his book's true-life account of how notorious Sheriff Willis McCall rounded up four innocent black men and charged them with the rape of a white woman in Lake County, just an hour north of Tampa.

He explained that NAACP attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall risked his life defending the suspects despite death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

He detailed how McCall made it appear he had to shoot two of the suspects because they tried to escape, though they were handcuffed together.

And with each account, the repeated use of the n-word I know those racists hurled at innocent victims echoed in my mind.

So no, I won't use it today or tomorrow.

But I'm rooting for you kids looking to make it a term of endearment and a less harmful word. Honest. Maybe you can succeed where we've failed. Maybe you can turn the page and create a more harmonious society.

In some ways, you already have. But don't believe your work is complete.

"If you're Middle Eastern, you're a terrorist," wrote freshman Xavier Nazir. "If you're Asian, you instantaneously become Chinese. This goes on for just about every ethnic group. People should stop making such a big deal over just one word and start focusing on all the other words."

In the end, I encourage you to take on this challenge with the broad perspective expressed by Nazir. And always remember the history you must overcome.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper: Rethinking a racial epithet 05/08/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2014 4:42pm]
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