The N-Word and Academia:
The Psychology of Employing an Epithet
The noose of racism was pulled tightly around the necks of those who came before. And though the literal twine that choked our throats is relatively obsolete, the figurative rope continues to cut the breath of our psychological well-being. This is evident in the cyclical arguments surrounding the rationalization of the N-word through the years, particularly when facilitated by our own academicians.
The N-word waxes and wanes in its vogue status; but to much of the older generation its connotation remains dangerous, and to the young it proves dangerously fashionable. Regardless of its intent, however, most would agree that the N-word is fundamentally derogatory, the epitome of an offensive racial slur. It is irresponsible then, especially within the context of higher education, to employ its use while discounting its historical significance and to begin to spin the N-word as merely a political term without reference to the psychological damage it continues to wield when uttered.
Whether used by Mark Furman, Chris Rock, Randall Kennedy or Tupac, the stigma that is associated with the N-word is not stripped, regardless of its use in-group or out of group. So when our scholars step in this murky goo of faux self-defining by way of employing the N-word, they do little more than shine their shackles and push a forever-advancing Black collective back in time. They, in essence, wallow in the disrespect of being called out of our humanity and accept it. No matter how our intellectuals or pop culture icons attempt to coin the use of this word and no matter how they choose to present it to the masses, the epithet still pierces with the weight of its racist and oppressive past. And enough time has not yet gone by to erase that fact.
The appreciation for and tolerance of being called the N-word by anyone and for whatever reason, is tantamount to accepting the moniker of monkey, baboon or some other primate to which Blacks have offensively been compared. Attempts to negotiate an acceptable use of the word merely sophisticates the psychological wound that it causes and only works to manifest the associated stigmas differently. When a racist says the N-word, the intent is to degrade and to dehumanize. When friends share it with one another there is the internalization of that racist intent. And it is not the definition that we choose to associate with the word that is paramount, but rather the history associated with its use that continues to make it so very caustic to our psychological health.
To twist the N-word in an effort to empower or to defuse is an expected attempt at defending against its innate toxicity, but it does nothing, really, but outline the deep scars in our psyche that slavery and the “American Apartheid” that followed has left. In inviting our White friends to share our use of the N-word, or in referencing its use by the young — and not so young — urban people of color as a term of endearment or affection, many reach the erroneous conclusion that we are reframing our cultural experience by incorporating and “owning” the degradation. This attempt, a kind of “in your face” move to show that we will not be deterred, is common. But what is this surface attempt at reframing really masking?
The psychological consequences suffered by many people of color who at an early age were subjected to or forced to tolerate the use of the N-word are often buried deep in the subconscious. A defense against this attack on one’s psyche is to suppress the true meaning of the offensive term, wishing to make it less powerful. But this is not possible, not yet. The N-word remains an attack on one’s psychological makeup no matter what fragrances are showered upon it to make it smell nice. And this core, this fundamental aggressive attack, stymies self-esteem development and an overall perception of self worth, no matter what.
For our scholars to suggest that the N-word belongs to African Americans and that it is pliable and malleable to our want or need, their dressing it up, taking it out and owning it is to marry themselves to the contemporary pillars of racism that we so desperately want to make obsolete.
— Dr. Georgette Hardy DeJesus is director of Pre-College Programs in Undergraduate Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. David Wall Rice is the assistant director.
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