Don’t Be Distracted by the N Word

This week, the WestView News got a lot of attention when it used the N word in the headline for an op-ed piece on President Obama, “The Nig-r in the White House.”

Of course everyone’s on fire about it. It’s been a chorus of ‘How dare he,’ and ‘I’m so offended.’ But for me, all the kerfuffle that has ensued is just another example of the public allowing itself to be distracted from an important message. The media articles I’ve seen have been quick to assert that the piece was pro-Obama, calling out the racism of far-right voters, but that message has been almost completely obscured by that one controversial word.

Yes, it’s a rather cheap media ploy to grab your attention. And yes, it’s obviously disrespectful to call the president of the United States the N word. But in this case, I think author James Lincoln Collier was referring to others’ opinion of President Obama, not his own. He was making a point, however baldly or badly, and that point has been lost.

The headline is offensive, but so is a lot of the crap the president’s been dealing with. In the piece, Collier openly says that “far-right voters hate Obama because he is black.”

“The simple truth is that there is still in America an irreducible measure of racism,” the article reads, condemning how “America’s increasing tolerance of far-right opinion has made racism more acceptable.”

Stop getting distracted by the controversy around a word. Deal with the message. That’s the important thing. Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. Being politically correct is not going to effect change with regard to race relations in this country. If it could, I wouldn’t be writing this blog, and diversity practitioners wouldn’t still be fighting the same battles they’ve been fighting for the past 40 years.

We need to accept that the N word exists, it’s not going away, it has horrific historical baggage, and while that baggage often persists when the word is used derisively, its modern iteration has changed significantly.

Black people have managed to take the controversial word, once a synonym for our very existence, one chained to degradation and oppression, humiliation and abuse, and turn it into a sign of affection and friendship, of kinship and connectedness. Furthermore, black people have appropriated the word, pulling it away from other races, who are no longer free to throw it around in any hurtful way, unless they want to be hurt. I suspect at least some of the angst associated with the article is not that the word appeared in the newspaper, but that it was an old white man who dared to write it.

Whether it’s right or wrong to use it is irrelevant in this context. Newspapers use headlines to inform and to capture the reader’s attention. This headline did that. Now, let’s all be smart adults, shake off our discomfort and absorb the gist of Collier’s rather convoluted point: our current president’s effectiveness has been impacted by the world’s views on race, and on black people in particular. Period.