AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following blog post includes quotes that contain racist epithets.
The right-wing corporate media in this country is manufacturing yet another, for lack of a better term, non-scandal scandal over something involving President Barack Obama. This time, it’s over Obama’s use of a six-letter racial epithet that begins with the letter “n” in an interview by comedian Marc Maron.
Here’s what Obama said while being interviewed by Maron:
Racism, we are not cured of it. And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public. That’s not the measure of whether racism still exists or not. It’s not just a matter of overt discrimination. Societies don’t, overnight, completely erase everything that happened 200 to 300 years prior.
You can listen to a podcast of the full Maron interview of Obama here.
I firmly believe that the president used the N-word in an appropriate context. The underlying message of what the president was saying was this: Just because one removes racial epithets from their vocabulary doesn’t mean that he or she isn’t a racist anymore. There are many people in this country who don’t use racial epithets (at least not in public), yet hold prejudiced views of ethnic minorities.
The president isn’t the only Democratic elected official to have used the N-word in such a context. One person who has used the N-word in an appropriate context who I can think of off of the top of my head is Melissa Sargent, a member of the Wisconsin State Assembly. Sargent, a white woman who grew up in an interracial family, wrote this op-ed, in which she talked about having racial epithets directed at her when she was a child, for a Madison, Wisconsin-based newspaper last year.
Here’s the part of Sargent’s op-ed where she used the N-word in what I would consider to be an appropriate context:
I grew up in Madison. I have two brothers and a sister. One of my brothers and my sister were adopted; they are African-American.
We did all the normal things that kids do around Madison. We played in the park, went to the beach, and rode our bikes. When it came time to go to school, we naturally walked there together. When I was in fourth grade, our mom made us all matching outfits to wear on the first day of school so my brand new first-grade sister would feel more connected to us. We were proudly marching arm-in-arm, wearing our Hawaiian print shirts when I started hearing the catcalls: “Nigger-lover, nigger–lover, nigger-lover.” As a child it was hard to comprehend why they were mocking me. The words were beyond my years, but I could feel the hatred in their voices.
That was just one of many times I witnessed this kind of treatment toward my family. I knew then that my brother and sister, and their future children, would have a much different experience in the world than I.
The rest of Sargent’s op-ed was about fear institutional racism in this country; the op-ed was written not long after Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri.
Sargent was quoting racists who used the N-word to verbally attack her and her family, which is what I consider to be using the N-word in an appropriate context. The message that Sargent was conveying is that she has been subjected to overt racism because her parents adopted black children.
Make no mistake about it, the Southern Strategy is absolutely disgusting and, to this day, the modus operandi of most Republican politicians. However, when the late Lee Atwater, a far-right Republican political consultant who ran George H.W. Bush’s winning 1988 presidential campaign, used the N-word while describing the evolution of political messaging used by right-wing politicians in this country in an anonymous interview by political scientist Alexander P. Lamis, it was technically in an appropriate context.
Here’s what Atwater said about the Southern Strategy in his 1981 interview by Lamis, which was uncovered by The Nation magazine in late 2012:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
(slight grammar edits mine)
While I despise Atwater and his racist style of politics, what he said is right. In 1954, politicians could get elected in many parts of the country, especially in the South, but also in many other places across the country, by using the N-word and other forms of overt racism to appeal to white racists. By 1968, using the N-word in political messaging was considered disqualifying for major party politicians in much of the country (although it was still considered acceptable in many parts of the South), and racist politicians resorted to using dogwhistles like “states’ rights” in order to defend racist policies. Technically speaking, Atwater used the N-word in an appropriate context, since he was talking about political messaging that racist politicians used in the mid-20th century.
Usually, using the N-word and other racial epithets are considered highly inappropriate and racist. However, if one is having an intelligent conversation about racism, and uses the N-word in the context of an intelligent conversation about racism, then it can be, depending on exactly how it’s used, considered appropriate to use the N-word.