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Parsing the N-Word

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"Nigger. That's what we're talking about," Don Lemon, a CNN anchor, said at the start of a remarkable hour of television about what many people -- myself included -- consider just about the most indefensible term in the English language, a word in the news lately because a whole lot of people are making a big deal over the fact that Paula Deen may have uttered it within the past 30 years. As if she is the only 66-year-old Southern white woman who has done so. As if she is the only public figure who has done so.

As if many black people don't blithely utter it every day. Not just Samuel L. Jackson in a Quentin Tarantino film, mind you. But black folks in politics, in civil rights, in entertainment, in academe.

"If the word is offensive and evil, it is offensive and evil no matter who is using it," a friend said in a Facebook posting. I agree with him, but many blacks do not. Every day the word blares from radios and rolls off the tongues of black people in rap songs and casual conversation. Clarence Thomas's ears must have burned as black people reacted to his role in gutting the Voting Rights Act in the recent U. S. Supreme Court decision and in pushing for the elimination of affirmative action. Some people invoked "the n-word" to damn his soul; for good measure, some called him Uncle Tom and even Uncle Thomas.

But Paula Deen has become what the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. calls "a sacrificial lamb." In this soap-opera loving, reality-TV-obsessed culture, it is easier to focus on Paula Deen and her million mea culpas on TV and over the Internet than to focus on government policies and corporate actions that have an actual impact on the lives of black people. Piling on the criticism of Deen, as her financial empire crumbles and she is branded with a scarlet R for racist, becomes at once an opportunity to superficially show of support for blacks and an act of sanctimonious hypocrisy.

As much as I abhor "the n-word" and try not to use it, I must confess that I have used it within the past 30 years, probably within the past year. When I really want to express my disdain for a fellow black person, I might even use "negro" with my attitude dripping from each syllable.

I was first called "nigger" when I was a child in Conyers, Ga. I did not know the meaning. But from the tone of the white man in a clown's suit who yelled it at me as he ordered me off a shopping center choo-choo train meant for the kids of white shoppers, I knew it was no term of endearment. It stung. It still does.

The evolution of the Deen situation has been fascinating to watch even as I cringe at the details of her ignorance. "I is what I is, and I'm not changing," she told the Today show's Matt Lauer in a blubbering, Tammy Faye Baker-like interview. She ain't as dumb as she'd have us believe -- witness her creation of the Paula Deen brand -- but she is ignorant. She may not be mean-spirited, but she does inhabit a 21st century world where a dream wedding features an antebellum plantation theme with black men politely standing in as slaves to serve guests. And she is oblivious to the discomfort of a black employee she summons before television cameras as Exhibit A of her love for black people she considers damn near kinfolks.

Deen's brash, say-whatever-comes-out-of-her-mouth style is what has endeared her to millions of television viewers, cookbook lovers and foodies. It has also led to a fall from grace that began in May when she was questioned in a deposition as part of a lawsuit brought by a disgruntled former employee -- a white woman who complained about a hostile work environment that included, among other things, a liberal use of the word nigger.

Lawyer: Miss Deen, have you ever told racial jokes?
Deen: No, not racial.
Lawyer: OK. Have you ever used the n-word yourself?
Deen: Yes, of course.
Lawyer: OK. In what context?
Deen: Well, it was probably when a black man burst into the bank that I was working at and put a gun to my head....
Lawyer: OK. Have you used it since then?
Deen: I'm sure I have, but it's been a very long time."

The world is upside down when black rappers using "nigger" (or "nigga") make millions of dollars for their mostly-white corporate owners, and Paula Deen runs to the Rev. Jesse Jackson for absolution the way Michael Richards of Seinfeld did after being outed for berating black hecklers as "niggers" during a nightclub performance. Of course, Jackson's undisciplined lips have got him in trouble over the years with impolitic references to Jewish people in the 1984 presidential campaign and to Barack Obama in 2008. But to Richards -- and now to Deen -- his seniority among racial elders gives him some degree of street cred. "She should be reclaimed rather than destroyed," he told the Associated Press.

Unsolicited, the Rev. Al Sharpton has offered advice from his nightly show on MSNBC. His own words have come back to haunt him since his involvement in the racially-divisive and ultimately unfounded charge by a black teenager that she was raped by a gang of white men in New York 25 years ago. Ostensibly more mature, if not contrite, he says: "If I were to give Miss Deen some advice, I would say: Look, we've all made mistakes. If they happened long ago, say that."

Like so many people, Deen says she takes her cues from blacks. "I try to go with whatever the black race is wanting to call themselves at each given time," she said in the May 17 deposition. "I try to go along with that and remember that."

She sounds like other older whites who have been confused that "colored" is no longer acceptable but "people of color" is.

Do we really want to spend time parsing "nigger" and "nigga" through the prisms of skin color, age, body language and vocal inflection? Let's call a spade a spade: The only sure way to end the confusion about "nigger" and to strip it of its power is to bury it forevermore.