The New N-Word Standard Isn’t Progress

Over roughly the past two decades, American mores have been settling into an idea that when it comes to the N-word, there’s no difference between use — lobbing the word as a slur in reference to a Black person or Black people, and mention, referring to the word itself. Particularly if the speaker is white.

Some seem to think enforcement of this bright-line standard is progress: At the end of a recent cable-news soliloquy, Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator, said: “You can never — and white folk need to hear this during Black History Month. It is never OK to say the word,” then he said the actual word, then, “Period.” If that approach is progress, then it’s a peculiar kind of progress not worth what it requires from us as thinking people.

That TV segment was about the ubiquitous podcaster, stand-up comedian, ultimate-fighting commentator and former “Fear Factor” host Joe Rogan, who has come under fire for saying the N-word on his show a number of times, compiled in a video that’s been shared widely on social media. Many might find it hard to imagine that in the 21st century, a sensible media host would sound off with that word. And indeed, without the benefit of more context, what we see in the compilation is Rogan referring to the word casually, sometimes seemingly in dismissal or mockery, or briefly imitating someone else’s use of the word. Rogan has since posted an apology video on Instagram.

Last year, I wrote about how the N-word became “unsayable.” In a recent installment of this newsletter, I said that the N-word, “among the most, if not the most, acrid slurs” should certainly be condemned when hurled as a bigoted oath. But there’s a difference between that and what Sellers is talking about that we need to unpack.

Not too long ago, it was considered OK for people who aren’t Black to refer to the N-word in conversation. Not to use it, but to mention it. Within the limits of decorum, of course: Someone who, even if only mentioning the word, did so repeatedly within one conversation came off as noxious. However, under normal circumstances, white people could passingly refer to the word without the now-predictable pushback. I’m old enough to have done a couple of radio interviews in the mid-90s where this was the case.

But today, the Rogan reel has become fuel on the fire Rogan ignited by hosting people with controversial views on everything from race relations to, in particular, Covid and vaccination, in the wake of which singers and podcasters, from Neil Young and India Arie to Brené Brown and Roxane Gay, have announced that they’re pulling or suspending their work from Spotify, the streaming service that hosts Rogan’s podcast. Yes, Rogan is also responsible for an inexcusably gross comparison of a movie theater in a Black neighborhood to “Planet of the Apes,” which he addresses in his Instagram video. That said, I hear Rogan’s mentions of the N-word as just that — mentions. And the idea that mentioning as opposed to using the N-word is a cardinal sin is questionable regardless.

The case for making this distinction is perhaps clearer with what happened to the journalist Mike Pesca, who hosted his podcast, “The Gist,” at Slate until last year. Pesca was investigated and then, The Washington Post reported, “mutually agreed to part ways” with Slate. First, for two incidences of mentioning rather than using the N-word, once in an interview and once on a podcast, neither of which, apparently, ever made it to publication. And then for a discussion on Slack about whether non-Black people are forbidden to speak the N-word in any context. Pesca seems to have been judged as rendering the workplace unsafe — in the parlance of our times — and his podcast is now on another platform.

But it’s fair to surmise that 20 years ago, an outlet like Slate wouldn’t have cut ties with Pesca over something like this, and it’s not clear that mores on race then were especially backward compared with today. On the Slate podcast I hosted at the same time Pesca was hosting his, I myself ventured that we all need to observe the difference between use and mention with the N-word — including that I said the word out loud and the full word was included in the written subtitle of the episode. Apparently, this left the workplace safe because I’m Black. But Pesca, in effect, got canned for doing more or less the same thing.

And then there’s the former C.E.O. of a Planned Parenthood regional affiliate based in Seattle, Chris Charbonneau — described in December by The Seattle Times’s Nina Shapiro as “a formidable figure in reproductive rights who worked for Planned Parenthood for nearly 40 years” — who was removed from her position. Why? Because in a conversation with colleagues in which Charbonneau recounted a previous conversation with a Planned Parenthood donor, she quoted the donor, who had spoken the N-word (even, according to Charbonneau, bracketing her retelling with “quote-unquote”). Reportedly, among those who took umbrage at Charbonneau’s mention of the N-word were two white Planned Parenthood staffers who later resigned, citing this episode, seemingly attempting to demonstrate — to signal — their commitment to what we now call antiracism. Charbonneau was faulted for her handling of the interaction with the donor, even though, according to The Seattle Times’s reporting on her side of the story, “the donor quickly said she shouldn’t have said that” and Charbonneau replied, “No, you shouldn’t have.”

I suppose the idea behind this new idea — that the problem isn’t just using the N-word as an insult, but uttering it in any context, including quoting someone else — is that the old approach was insufficiently antiracist. But it is a strange kind of antiracism that requires all of us to make believe that Black people cannot understand the simple distinction between an epithet and a citation of one. Missing that distinction, or pretending to, is at best coarse. And we are being instructed to carry on as if this coarse approach is a kind of sophistication.

Plus, the assumption that Black people are necessarily as insulted by the mention as by the use implies a considerable fragility on our part. An implication that I reject and resent. If all someone has to do to ruin your day is say a word — even in the process of decrying it — your claim on being a strong person becomes shaky. I made the same point last week in a somewhat different context, and I realize that some are affronted by my calling their fortitude into question, but I am mystified by how comfortable so many of us are in giving white people this power over us.

But then I may be missing the point. Maybe it’s that if a white person just mentioning the N-word is adjudged as lexical violence, subject to pitiless prosecution in the court of public opinion, then we have a kind of power ourselves. The tables seem turned. But there are other ways to exert power or effectuate Black uplift. Why include, alongside the power of exerting genuine achievement and brilliance — from Susan Collins being named as the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to the literary genius of Colson Whitehead — a pretense of not understanding the difference between using an epithet and mentioning it?

Because a pretense it is. We only exert this power by performing delicacy. I simply cannot believe that so many bright, confident people are meaningfully injured by hearing someone refer to a slur. Obviously, it’s never been OK to direct the N-word at someone to demean them, but Black observers just 20 years ago were often fine with someone not Black uttering the word in discourse; the response among their equivalents today would seem to be an add-on, a new look.

If all this falling to pieces served some larger purpose, perhaps there would be room for classifying it as a useful new standard. If people thought, for example, that it would help make Congress pass a reparations bill or force the Supreme Court’s right-leaning majority to rethink the Voting Rights Act, then they’d be making some kind of sense.

But none of that will happen, and this real life is all we have. Hypersensitivity for its own sake is self-destructive. It exerts a drag on the momentum of engaging in actual political activism, and even in our imbibing the wonders of this existence that we are all granted a spell of.

Yet an opinion like this one often attracts the tart critique that it is, in essence, a blanket condonation for use of the N-word. But that critique itself ignores the use/mention distinction, daring someone to call it out. If I’m condoning anything, it is, specifically, the mention, within bounds of civility, of the N-word: in college classrooms, when reading material from different eras; in reporting, giving news accounts of people saying it; and in private discussions between Planned Parenthood staff members recounting what donors say to them in private.

I’m open to the idea that some people genuinely don’t quite see the difference between using and mentioning the N-word. But we have to have this debate and return some nuance to our collective view — not pretend the difference doesn’t exist. I look at this differently than India Arie, but I’ll note that she acknowledges that Rogan’s mentions of the N-word weren’t racist, just, in her view, “insensitive.”

To those who would object and say they just don’t want to hear the word, no matter what, the constructive response would be to point out that not so long ago, far fewer people felt that way about mention versus use of this word, and to await, engage and evaluate their response to that. Maybe one might even decide that their subsequent response is one we agree with. But acquaintance with the straightforward use/mention difference is, or should be, a badge of membership in a modern society. Anyone who’s willing to process Black people referring to one another with the N-word, as a term of endearment or a form of word empowerment (and many, including me, are, even if we don’t use it this way ourselves) understands that a spoken or written instance of the N-word can mean more than one thing. As such, they should be able to appreciate, if not embrace, that quoting a savory rap lyric or comedian’s routine that includes the word or just referring to the word to note its prior application are not the same thing as deploying it as an insult.

Our current nervous social contract on this word requires us to act as if there is no such difference. But all of us, Black, white and otherwise, can see past this. The sky won’t fall if we admit it. It’s time to stop putting people in the stocks for mentioning the N-word when they’ve done nothing history will judge as wrong.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

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