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Two white journalists have stirred debate over their use of the n-word. Historian Elizabeth Pryor offers her analysis.
When I read about the two Black Capitol Police officers who were called the n-word during the storming of the Capitol on January 6, I thought about my own experiences of being called that uniquely horrible word from some white readers of my public philosophical work.
The word — which is vile, ugly and violent — is part of an anti-Black vocabulary meant to defile Black people. The word has a long history and has been the subject of debate within academia (around who gets to say it and when) and among Black people themselves. In recent weeks, this debate has flared once more as two white journalists have ignited a heated discussion regarding their use of the n-word.
To explore these issues and more, I had the honor of interviewing Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, who is an associate professor of history at Smith College, and the author of an award-winning article, “The Etymology of [N-Word]: Resistance, Language and the Politics of Freedom in the Antebellum North,” and a 2016 monograph entitled Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War.
Her new project is a historical and pedagogical study of the n-word framed by her experience as a biracial woman in the United States. Pryor is an award-winning teacher with 10 years of experience teaching about and examining the n-word; she is Smith College’s faculty teaching mentor; and she conducts faculty workshops on navigating the n-word and other racist language in the classroom. Her 2020 TED talk on the n-word has more than 2 million views. Pryor’s work on the n-word is indispensable as the U.S. deals with its history of white supremacy and its extant unabashed re-emergence.
George Yancy: Given the history of Black anti-racism in this country, I would think that explaining to white people that the n-word is off limits would not need to be debated. However, I get the impression that some white people feel at ease using the racist slur and perhaps are unconvinced that it should not be used. This month two white journalists have reignited conversation on this topic over their use of the n-word. Donald McNeil Jr, who was a science and health journalist at The New York Times, used the racist slur while in Peru with high school students on a trip. He used it in conversation with a student within a larger context of discussing racist language. Mike Pesca, a podcaster at Slate, is said to have argued that within certain contexts it is permissible for white people to use the n-word. It seems to me that taking the position that white people should not use the n-word is uncontroversial. Perhaps I’m being overly sensitive or draconian. What are your thoughts?
Elizabeth Pryor: Stories like the ones involving McNeil and Pesca read to me like dangerous clickbait. The premise is, as Bret Stephens recently published in The New York Times, the thought police is coming to get you. Framed as reflections of a woke culture gone awry, these news stories remind me of the 1915 film The Birth of a Nation in which emancipation of 4 million enslaved people and their political elevation is drawn as a direct threat to white freedom, well-being and safety. Thus, the idea that Black people today might give voice to their displeasure at having to confront the n-word at work, at school, in a carelessly worded Slack conversation, emerges as fodder for white liberals and the conservative right to imagine themselves as victims of the overzealous hordes of Black people (and their allies) who are gunning for their freedom and their rights. It’s The Birth of a Nation, 2.0. And in the film, the cure was the rise of the KKK. So what’s the cure to this so-called unwieldy exercise of Black freedom? The media framing of these stories is pernicious.
I always think, instead, about the tremendous sacrifice it takes for the person who dares to speak up in these moments. I wonder what it took for a teenager to stand up to McNeil or report him, to put their foot down and say, “No! Why should I have to feel shame and fear and unprotected simply because you’re trying to speak your mind for the sake of argument?”
Moreover, there’s always more to these cases than meets the eye. The spokeswoman for Slate says of the Pesca suspension, look, I’m not going to get into details, but, “I can confirm this was not a decision based around making an isolated abstract argument in a Slack channel.”
In other words, this isn’t only about using the n-word once or even only about using the n-word. I see this in my own research. White people and non-Black POC every day unwittingly speak the n-word, and they don’t end up losing their jobs or in the news. That’s because it is not uncommon in conversations to misspeak, to stand corrected and to adjust your approach in the future… maybe even offer an apology. In the cases that grab the attention of the media, however, the person accused usually doubles down. They insist they have the right; they refuse to listen or even engage a conversation about the harm they cause.
This is what I’d like folks to consider: If you want to have an open debate about the n-word, why not have it while using the surrogate phrase “the n-word” instead of the actual word? The phrase is not a tool of polite society. Instead, it has radical roots. It is born out of the activism and intellectualism of African Americans in the late 1980s and early 1990s who refused to repeat the anti-Blackness hurled against them. We have the n-word phrase in our lexicon, people know what it means (or can Google it), so why say the actual word just to make a point?
As a philosopher, I have made it my aim to engage philosophy within more expansive public contexts. This is important as philosophy is still perceived as abstract and socially irrelevant. Writing outside insular academic institutional contexts has its rewards, but there are downsides. For example, while some who engage in more public philosophy receive the occasional nasty message from a reader, I have received tons of hate mail. I have received email messages, voice messages left on my university answering machine, letters and postcards mailed to my office. While there are often some very choice expletives that are used, the n-word appears frequently. I cannot recall how many times I have been called the n-word. I thought that I could just brush it off, but my sense is that being called the n-word impacts one’s Black body even if its full impact is not registered until later. During the white supremacist violence unleashed at the Capitol on January 6, I recall reading about two of the Black Capitol Police officers being called the n-word. In fact, one of the Black veteran officers said that he was called the n-word 15 times during that day. He cried later, which was no doubt because of the white supremacist physical violence that he experienced, but also because of the use of that ugly word. It functions like a knee to one’s neck. I would like for you to speak to the word’s violence. I ask this because the word is not isolated from the white terror out of which it has been shaped.
At the core of the n-word is violence. It has long been a weapon of white supremacy. I think it’s important, too, that you were called the n-word in reaction to your public-facing work. I have been too. I once received an email that was basically a string of anti-Black epithets (monkey, sow, the misogynistic c-word) and the n-word was in there at least two or three times). I got the email because I talked to a CNN reporter about the pervasiveness of the terms “slave” and “master” in 21st-century public discourse. In the same way, it’s important that the Black police officers, ostensibly members of the Blue Lives [Matter] camp that Trump supporters so vehemently defend, are people who wind up on the firing end of the n-word. It’s precisely when Black folks speak out and assert ourselves as free people that we confront the word.It’s precisely when Black folks speak out and assert ourselves as free people that we confront the word.
Often, my students will say that they understand the roots of the n-word, that it comes from slavery. They are right to an extent. The word appears as soon as the first 20 enslaved Africans arrive in British North America in 1619. Those captives are referred to as n-words; they are understood as Black involuntary laborers, as slaves. Over time, their labor is institutionalized within the body of Black women (a child follows the condition of the mother) and their enslavement lasts in perpetuity (me, my children and my children’s children). Any person occupying that labor category in the emerging United States would be called the n-word.
But the evidence suggests the violence of that particular word (not of enslavement, of course, but of the n-word itself) manifests later. It is in the early 1800s, as African-descended people become free in the northern states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York — that the n-word latches on like a shackle. Suddenly, the unflattering word used to describe an actual and existing labor category is now attributed to all people with Black skin, free or otherwise, and it’s meant to signify that Black servility is immutable and that Black folks are incapable of embodying freedom. So, more than anything, the n-word is an assault against Black freedom and a rallying cry of anti-Blackness for exactly that reason. When a Black cop, despite their membership among the boys of blue, defies white aggression, they are deemed nothing more than n-words, particularly because they stand up. The same is true when African Americans, such as Obama, are prosperous. According to this thinking, any kind of Black mobility (social, political, economic) is a direct threat to white supremacy, and the person enacting that mobility [is] an n-word.
Believe it or not, years ago, in one of my philosophy courses where we were talking about white privilege, one of my white male students argued that it is discriminatory to prevent white people from using the n-word. As a Black professor, it was hard to maintain my calm, but I did. I asked the class, which was predominantly white, if anyone else held that view. There was one other white male in the course who reluctantly raised his hand in agreement. There was part of me that wanted to immediately shut him down. As I recall, we had a productive discussion. He came away understanding not only why he could not use the word, but he also came away understanding the ridiculousness of the claim that he was being discriminated against. I made it clear that the logics of white privilege imply that white people have this sense that they can possess (almost as if by having a “natural right” to do so) whatever they so desire. After explaining how Black people have attempted to take some of the sting out of that word (for example, deleting the “er”), I made it clear that the word is off limits to white people — it is as simple as that. What is your pedagogy, so to speak, around using the n-word? I say this also because there are white teachers who have gotten into serious trouble using the n-word.
It doesn’t surprise me at all that there are some white people, especially white men, who feel discriminated against because they are being asked not to say something. I always think of freedom of speech as a right granted to “the people” against the government, against power. It’s my right as a lowly citizen to speak about the government or about certain leaders of government without facing arrest or detainment of any kind. And yet, it’s interesting to me that some of the people most likely to assert the right of freedom of speech are people with access to the most power and who want to wield that power against the historically disenfranchised.
My evidence is anecdotal, but still compelling: It’s at just about the time that Black students, in the early 1990s, at colleges and universities across the country begin saying the surrogate phrase “the n-word” (rather than repeating the actual word) that we hear calls against political correctness and for the rights of free speech emerging on those campuses. In other words, it’s just when Black people start to set the terms of how they want to be spoken about and how language can be deployed against them (or not) that certain factions begin resisting. I’m thinking of a case called “the water buffalo incident” at the University of Pennsylvania in 1993. Five Black women, assaulted by verbal attacks and a litany of racial slurs, end up making a public statement at the end of the spring semester in which they refuse to repeat the anti-Black and misogynistic language used against them.More than anything, the n-word is an assault against Black freedom and a rallying cry of anti-Blackness.
But as to your question: The classroom is in crisis across the United States over the misuse of the n-word. It really, really is. I talk about this in my TED talk on why it’s hard to talk about the n-word. I think there are two problems operating when teachers, especially white teachers, speak the n-word out loud in class. The first is in how they use the n-word as a symbol of racism’s past without giving credence to its anti-Black resonance in the present. These instructors often think speaking it out loud is important precisely because of how it shocks and that they are doing important work by letting that discomfort arise in their classroom. Perhaps this would be true if U.S. classrooms were filled only with white students who had no cultural literacy, who never met a Black person, but they’re not. Black students often take the brunt of these interactions and find themselves having to either suck it up and say nothing and endure the anxiety of that, or to speak up and be an activist, when really, they just wanted to come to school to learn.
Under these conditions, the classroom becomes a hostile space for Black students and impedes rather than encourages learning. I also think educators would be surprised at how many white students are overwhelmed and traumatized by these exchanges. The second problem with the n-word is that teachers rarely provide historical context. We have such a profound opportunity to teach young people about race and racism through this word that’s in the music they love and proliferates the culture they live in — in video games, artworks, movies. There’s an assumption that everyone, if they’re born in the United States, somehow has an innate understanding of the power of the n-word by virtue of their “American-ness.” This isn’t true, and I think by not teaching the history of the word and, of course, the history of the racism that produced it, we perpetuate its violence and create a crop of young people who end up in your class and debate you about how its discriminatory not to be able to say it.
I think that all Black people have had what you call a “point of encounter” with the n-word. As I mentioned, it enters my body, and then I carry the load of its violence. Talk about your point of encounter. What does the word do to you?
What does the n-word do to me? Well, the anti-Black version of the word — the one that ends in “er” — ties me in knots, makes me self-conscious, brutalizes me, brings back painful memories, makes me paranoid, afraid, confused. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a point of encounter and the first thing I think is “What did I do?” I blame myself. Sometimes it’s taken me years to make sense of the encounter and realize it wasn’t my fault at all.
I’m writing a book right now about these experiences. Plural. A whole book. I say this to emphasize that there have been many more times I’ve been accosted and assaulted by the n-word. The thing I’m calling a “point of encounter” is when you have a run-in with the n-word, whether in an academic setting, a debate, in popular culture or art, or if you’ve been the victim of a slur or witnessed someone being the victim of the slur. It was a point of encounter in my classroom that set off my research on the n-word. A well-meaning white student quoted the word in class, and I realized I had no idea what to do. I sputtered a response and tried to stop them, but they were quoting a line from a movie and repeated it.
What happened for me next, however, was really surprising. After speaking with my students about the incident and about the word, many of them started confessing. What I mean by that is they started revealing their own stories about points of encounter with the n-word — many of which happened in the classroom. I hear these stories all the time. When I give public talks, people are so generous and trusting with me and tell me stories about being called the n-word, memories that they carry all their lives.
I think of Emily Bernard’s beautiful 2005 personal reflection on the n-word in the classroom which she opens with Countee Cullen’s poem, “Incident.” In it, Cullen talks about going to Baltimore as an 8-year-old child and seeing another child, white and a little bit older, on the bus. Cullen looks over at the older boy, and the boy sticks out his tongue and calls him the n-word. Cullen spent that entire summer in Baltimore, but, as the poem tells us, he remembers nothing but the word and the incident on the bus.
There’s a way these moments inscribe themselves into our brains and our nerve endings. They obliterate everything else. At least they do for me. It blows my mind how many encounters I remembered once I started doing this work. And even more surprising are the ones I’ve forgotten. My cousin, who, like all of my first cousins is white, texted me the other day and told me she remembered when I was 15, I refused to go with her into a pizza place outside of Boston because I was convinced someone would call me the n-word. I don’t remember that at all, but I’ve felt that feeling so many other times, I know it’s true. I’ve passed up so many “best ice cream in the city” and “best breakfast in town” because I felt in my heart, once I saw the places, if I went inside, I might encounter that word.
There will be many white people who will continue to use the n-word. And, here, I don’t mean card-carrying white supremacists, but liberal and progressive whites. How might we better prepare Black students to effectively deal with the ugliness of that word, even when white people, apparently, don’t intend to use it as an anti-Black racist slur? I ask this because regardless of their “good intentions,” the use of that word does not lose its violent and vicious wounding.
I think the question you ask is so great because it’s 100 percent true. White people will continue to use this word. They will. I recently met a law professor whose students told me that when they asked him to please stop speaking “the n-word” (they used that phrase), he said the actual word right back to them. He was that committed to using the word. And I do think white liberals are some of the biggest culprits of this.
Black people know what to do when a white person calls them the n-word as a slur, or at least, we know how to feel. We have the right to be angry and hurt and afraid and outraged. There is space for that reaction in our culture (even though, honestly, it’s still been confusing to me to be called the slur). But when someone says it casually in conversation, or when teaching a lesson, or when repeating something they overheard, how am I supposed to feel then? Where is the space for me to say, Please don’t, I really don’t like that, and, in so doing, to not somehow be transgressive to so-called American ideals? Which is why I love the question. Instead of asking how we control those white speakers of the n-word, (who are not going away), you ask, How do we arm Black students against it?Instead of trying to control the Black use of the word, we should be more concerned with trying to dismantle the white supremacy that makes the n-word a powerful statement of Black irreverence.
I think Black students should know it’s okay to speak up about the word if they want to and it’s also okay not to speak up about the word if they don’t. When you’re assaulted, whether that’s a verbal assault or some other kind, a lot of times the feelings get bottled up and are hard to digest. Hearing the n-word, even as part of a legitimate lesson, still creates a lot of those feelings. Even when people are “just” quoting the word, what they are likely doing, especially in the classroom, is telling the story of some kind of racial violence. Why else would the n-word be in literature or a law book or a history essay? It’s there to highlight an episode of racial violence. By repeating it, you’re not neutral or being “just” authentic to the source material because the story you’re telling is likely not neutral either. Instead, it’s likely laden with the anti-Blackness of the history of the United States.
There are many who would argue that any use of the n-word is prohibited. I recall that in 2007 there were many, I believe headed by the NAACP, who assembled in Detroit, Michigan, to bury the n-word. It was a ceremonial funeral. However, I have come to terms with the complex ways in which Black people use the n-word amongst themselves. I like the agency that Black people, especially younger Black people, exhibit when they use the respelled version of the word. I see this as one way of denuding the term of its violence or metaphorically taking it out of the mouths of white people and marking it with a different meaning, a positive meaning. Perhaps a similar argument can be made for some women who use the b-word amongst themselves but who argue against men using the term. Of course, I don’t wish to conflate the two words. What are your thoughts about Black people using the n-word in ways that attempt to resignify its meaning?
The n-word with the soft “-ga” is working for young Black people — artists, musicians, poets and people walking down the street. It is effective to signal Black subversion and protest. It’s powerful for them. I study the early 19th century, and even then, African Americans used the n-word with each other and among each other in defiance of white definitions of the word.
In my essay on the word, I argue that the reason that this particular word emerged as a vitriolic word is because Black people were using it among each other and gave it political weight. As Black people started to become free, white minstrel performers in the antebellum North used the word as part of their attempt to authenticate their blackface Blackness on stage. They wore black cork on their faces, ragged clothes, spoke in dialect, and often used the n-word. When whites used the word, they did so to mock Black speech.
Even when Black people became free, many Black people still used the word among each other, and many working-class Black folks continued to do so among themselves. This is something that my father, Richard Pryor — the iconic Black comedian — exposed when he finally found his voice on stage in the early 1970s. It’s important and groundbreaking that he called his 1974 album “That N-word’s Crazy” (only with the actual word, not the phrase). His comedy demonstrates how Black people use the n-word as a form of protest.
I think the use of the n-word by Black folks is working, it’s marking something, making a claim, and not until the structures are in place, like social justice and equity, will the word become meaningless. Instead of trying to control the Black use of the word, we should be more concerned with trying to dismantle the white supremacy that makes the n-word a powerful statement of Black irreverence.
When I think about the n-word, I cannot separate it from white supremacy. Does the continued virulent use of the term depend upon the continued existence of white supremacy? I don’t see white supremacy ending anytime soon. Hence, I don’t see any end in sight regarding the violent use of the n-word. Any thoughts on this? In other words, do you see any hope for us as a nation regarding not only white supremacy, but its deployment of discursive tools that are designed to oppress?
The n-word is going no place until white supremacy comes to an end, and we have such great powerful minds at work who simply cannot even begin to imagine a world or a United States without it, or better yet, who don’t want to.
Last summer, as a result of the protests over police brutality, the nation started using the phrase “systemic racism.” The systemic part is important. If you imagine racism as a corrosion of your plumbing, eating away at the lead and spilling sewage into the groundwater, you wouldn’t continue patching up those pipes. You’d tear them out and get brand news ones with a better and stronger material.
But somehow, even though everyone — Nike, the NFL, presidential candidates, ABC’s “the Bachelor” — used the term “systemic” to describe the state of white supremacy, they offered no real framework for undoing the systems. Instead, they just tried to patch it up: Let’s celebrate Juneteenth, let’s take down Confederate statues. And I’m not saying these are not important actions and symbols, because they are, but somebody needs to get in there and replace the pipes. Without new pipes, the n-word and its legacy will persist. And Black people will continue to speak their own version in protest, and likely insist that non-Black people in the United States find another way, besides the n-word, to express themselves.
George Yancy is the Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth College. He is also the University of Pennsylvania’s inaugural fellow in the Provost’s Distinguished Faculty Fellowship Program (2019-2020 academic year). He is the author, editor and coeditor of over 20 books, including Black Bodies, White Gazes; Look, A White; Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America; and Across Black Spaces: Essays and Interviews from an American Philosopher published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020.
First published in Truthout. Included in Vox Populi with permission.