08/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

One WASP's take on The N Word

The N Word and Me:

I'm a 50 year-old White Anglo Saxon Protestant, but that's where the similarity ends, because by marriage I've been a member of a large black family for more than half my life. And I'm not talking about black people who have a place in Sag Harbor and season tickets to the Opera. I'm talking about a huge raucous family from Oklahoma and Texas, some of whom use the word nigger when addressing me.

I love, and am loved, by in-laws who, when exasperated or skeptical, or amused, have called me, to be precise, "niggah". It always pleases me, and no, I have never reciprocated, but like a growing number of people who have a deep personal stake in undermining racism, I don't simply hate the N word.

The first time my wife called me her nigger I felt a particular thrill. It was the kind of moment when the blood rushes to certain places, even as your mind recoils from its' lustful thoughts. It was like she'd said, "If you want me to kill somebody for you, I will." She said it real soft, with a hand on her hip. Half her mouth was smiling, the other half wasn't. That was twenty-five years ago. We'd known each other for a few months and were wildly smitten.

"You my niggah," she said. I remember the sensation like it was yesterday.

My wife is not what one would describe as 'ghetto.' She can 'go there' to be sure, but in her heart, her demeanor, and her upbringing, my wife is an elegant and refined black lady. She was raised by parents who abhorred the N-word, and did not allow it spoken in their home. Nevertheless, it remains an everyday greeting, admonition and punchline among their politically aware, college educated children and children's children. The word has legs. It wasn't stamped out by the civil rights movement, it was redefined and, somewhat, taken over, by the generation of black Americans that inherited it. But it remains uniquely inflammatory, because, as an increasingly desegregated culture, we still don't seem to be able to talk intelligently about it. The word has the power to make us stupid. The best we can do is talk about what it has meant, instead of what it means now. And we're not even very good at that.

Case in point: Whoopi Goldberg and Elizabeth Hasselback recently demonstrated the peril, and pointlessness, of debating whether this word should be spoken anymore by anyone, of any color. I submit that it's not a matter of 'should' because the meaning of pivotal, incendiary language always evolves more quickly than the arguments for or against. Words cannot be wiped out. They can only be replaced due to obsolescence or transformation. Neither is likely to happen to the word 'nigger' anytime soon. My brother in law, a man who has raised five successful, educated, and socially aware black children, is a particularly eloquent user of the N-word, and when he says, "That niggah's crazy!" it's almost always, well, appropriate.

I am not defending the self-demeaning, nihilistic, 'niggerization' that is so called Gangsta, or Thug Life culture. That would be like defending the symptoms of a disease. I don't like that shit, and I cringe when I hear my son follow along, word for word, with those dumb-ass, ignorant lyrics. To which he replies, "Dad, it's gangsta rap. Of course it's ignorant!" and he goes right on rapping. And damned if I'm not bobbing my head along with him by the time we park the car.

Like him, I've learned not to take it too seriously, but I remain deeply disappointed that so many hip hop "artists" appear comfortable being buffoons, who may as well have been created by racist overlords to make black people look bad. But the word nigger isn't the problem. It's lack of other words that's the problem. It's ignorance that's the problem. As my brother in law would say, "If them niggah's didn't have the words nigger and fuck, they'd be a bunch of goddamn mutes!"

Wouldn't that be a relief.

"But what about The Black Community?" cry the hand wringing white liberals, and impatient white conservatives, and uneasy white moderates. "Why do they keep saying that terrible word that we're not allowed to say!?"

The so-called 'Black Community' is neither completely comfortable, nor unanimously horrified, by the continued presence of the word nigger in the American vernacular, because the 'Black Community' is as varied, divided, and dynamic as any other community. We keep trying to define each other in these unhelpful, monolithic terms. It's a symptom of intellectual laziness. Hey, maybe we should make improving public education a higher priority. Just a thought.

In our household, when talking to our black children, we try to point out that awareness of context and nuance does not remove the singular status from the word nigger. It is still unique in it's power to wound, and incite. When used as a bludgeon by non-black people, or repeated ad nauseum by black people, it reverts to the vile obscenity it's been since slavery. No one, we admonish, should forget, or downplay, its hateful origins.

But the truth also is that in our household, nigger is just another dirty word. We are not a family that can neatly divide the people with permission to say it, from those who aren't allowed. As I occasionally point out to my children, It's kind of hard for me, twenty six years into being part of a black community, to differentiate nigger from fuck, suck, shit, bitch, ho, motherfucker, cunt, and all the other trash language that we hear on the street, and on radio, TV and the internet twenty four hours a goddamn day. The liberalizing of the airwaves is not, in my opinion (in case you missed my note of weary exasperation) what I'd call progress. For me, and a growing number of white men and women in mixed families, 'nigger', when used without self-awareness and context, is just one more piece of the ever growing cultural crassness that sloshes around like floodwater these days. To fixate on whether or not it's okay to say it, as the ladies on The View were doing the other day, is to miss this larger point. At such a crucial moment in our history, when a black man who literally embodies the idea that we are all ultimately one race, could become the next president, our ability to put things into context, observe subtleties, and notice our common humanity with as much awareness as we notice the things that divide us, has never been more important. We need to shake off the last eight spirit-crushing years of willful ignorance, brazen hypocrisy, and cynical politicization, and stop wasting our breath with facile pronouncements about what we're allowed to say. Ignorance and intolerance are the root of obscenity. Not the other way around. The word nigger isn't going away anytime soon. Let's figure out what that's about, instead of arguing about whether it's too awful to say aloud.

In order to do this, we need to understand ourselves better. As a white man in a black family, I can say with some authority, the word 'nigger' has a lot of different meanings, and context is crucial to understanding why it persists in our language. Talking heads from Elizabeth Hasselback to Jesse Jackson can bloviate all they want about how nobody should be allowed to say it, but they both know they are grossly oversimplifying, precisely in order to keep the argument on the Jerry Springer level. That, after all, is how they make their living. People who have achieved brand status on TV don't get paid to really listen, because what if, God forbid, they blurt out something like, "Wow, I never thought of it that way before." Rather, they get paid to present market-tested attitudes that audiences and sponsors can comfortably endorse or dismiss, without having to think too hard: Righteous Indignation, Holier-than-thou Dismay, or the ever reliable, Snarky Cynicism. But the cost of all this willful bullshit is very high. We lose any sense of context. Every issue becomes a shouting match. Self-righteousness and moral outrage overwhelm any chance for thoughtful discussion.

Yes, Reverend Jackson said the N-word the other day, but why? Was he being ironic? Was he kidding? Did we get a glimpse of an old lion's understandable bitterness that this upstart, Obama, has passed him on the way to a new paradigm? Now, that conversation -- had anyone on TV dared to have it -- might have put the dreaded N-word into fascinating context. But all we got was, "Civil rights leader says the N-word! How could he, of all people? Oh the hypocrisy!" Oh, put a sock in it! Of course Jesse Jackson is guilty of hypocrisy, but not just because he got careless in front of a hot microphone. Who among us hasn't muttered an uncouth aside before warmly greeting someone we don't like? Rather, it's because, as gifted and courageous as he has been, he no longer bothers to differentiate speaking truth to power from opportunistic grandstanding. Like I said, the man's got to make a living.

And once again the N-word proved it's usefulness as a hot topic for another exercise in insight avoidance, and keeps it's role as the only word in our language that is perceived as a villain by some, and strangely irreplaceable, by others. What a word.