Our conversation about a word that starts with ‘N’

If I call my wife “Babe” I get no criticism.
If my wife’s former boyfriend, (Let’s name one: Monty) calls her “Babe,” well I kind of have a problem with it.

Our stories last week about the Poulsbo Elementary School principal placed on paid leave for using the “N” word, version one and version two, sparked quite the outcry about our PC culture, ways of educating, equivalent words and whether it’s fair that black people can use that word and no one else can.

There are a handful of things about this particular incident that are worth pulling out in ways that are easier here than they are in a news story. And to be clear, I won’t use the word in this piece or any of the stories. I see the point that when I write “the N-word” I’m making you think it. I get that. Louis C.K. does a comedy bit about that and the reason comedy is often so effective is because of how much truth there is to it. But, at the risk of taking a comedian literally, there are parts of his argument I do not agree with. And I feel better not saying it, just letting you think it. Or, if you don’t know what it is, causing you to go ask someone. I’m OK with that.

So, back to the point.

1. No one has said anything negative to me about Claudia Alves, the principal who is on paid leave. No one, that I know of, ever asked for her to be disciplined. I can even see where what has happened is technically not a disciplinary action, although I’m sure it feels like it. Parents have understandably come to her defense, and the parents at the center of this issue said they never asked for any disciplinary action to be taken.

2. The issue for the district, the way I understand it, was in the word’s repeated use. In fact, a North Kitsap Herald editorial makes that case clear as well:

“The school district’s director of elementary education said it was not necessary for Alves to use the N-word in explaining that difference. And it wasn’t necessary for her to use the actual word again, and again in discussing the issue with the student’s parents.”

What Patty Page, North Kitsap School District superintendent, confirmed to me, as well, is that Alves used the word even after the district talked to her about it. The district did not place Alves on leave after her first use of the word. The way Shawna Smith tells it, Alves used the word four times, at least once after she had been advised not to. After the fourth instance, Smith called district officials again. She did not ask for disciplinary action. Smith told district officials, “She’s not getting it,” Smith said.

3. Some were confused by what word caused the problem. It was not “negro,” though that word was troubling to kids in the class asked to use it several times in the play “Martin Luther King, Jr. 10-minute mini: Overcoming Segregation.” In the play the kids were asked to sing lines pulled verbatim from actual Jim Crow laws. Here’s a snippet of the script:

NARRATOR #7: On living and dying:
CHORUS A: All marriages between a white person and a negro are forever
prohibited.
CHORUS B: It is unlawful for anyone to rent an apartment to a negro person
when the building has white people living there.
CHORUS A: Every hospital will have separate entrances for white and colored
patients and visitors.
CHORUS B: At a cemetery, no colored persons may be buried in ground set
apart for white persons.

Neither “negro” or the other “N-word” are considered acceptable anymore, but one was never neutral. The Leonard Pitts Jr. column referenced in the Herald editorial addresses the N-word.

“The N-word is unique. It was present at the act of mass kidnap that created “black America,” it drove the ship to get here, signed the contracts at flesh auctions on Southern ports as mother was torn from child, love from love and self from self. It had a front row center seat for the acts of blood, rape, castration, exclusion and psychological destruction by which the created people was kept down and in its place. The whole weight of our history dictates that word cannot be used except as an expression of contempt for African Americans.”

“Negro” was for many little more than a description of race, but in the late 1960s began, and “began” is important, to fall out of fashion. Slate’s Explainer column offers this history:

The turning point came when Stokely Carmichael coined the phrase black power at a 1966 rally in Mississippi. Until then, Negro was how most black Americans described themselves. But in Carmichael’s speeches and in his landmark 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, he persuasively argued that the term implied black inferiority. Among black activists, Negro soon became shorthand for a member of the establishment. Prominent black publications like Ebony switched from Negro to black at the end of the decade, and the masses soon followed. According to a 1968 Newsweek poll, more than two-thirds of black Americans still preferred Negro, but black had become the majority preference by 1974. Both the Associated Press and the New York Times abandoned Negro in the 1970s, and by the mid-1980s, even the most hidebound institutions, like the U.S. Supreme Court, had largely stopped using Negro.

In the North Kitsap incident it was the lesser word that launched the use of the worse one, but it was the repeated use of the worse one that led to the paid leave.

4. It might seem a small point to many, but Alves was not “suspended.” She was placed on paid leave.

5. Answering why it’s OK for blacks to say the word and not other races skips over one point and deserves expansion on another. The first point is that many blacks argue against its use. Pitts did in his piece. “How can we require others to respect us when this word suggests we don’t respect ourselves?” he wrote.

Neal Lester, an English professor at Arizona State University, taught a course devoted to the N-word, and said this in a Southern Poverty Law Center Teaching Tolerance intervew:

“The poison is still there. The word is inextricably linked with violence and brutality on black psyches and derogatory aspersions cast on black bodies. No degree of appropriating can rid it of that bloodsoaked history.”

In addressing why there are different rules for non-blacks, I go to the first two sentences of this blog post. I have permission to say things to my wife that other people don’t. I mean, they can say it, but they shouldn’t expect there to be no consequences. If my wife and her sisters each called each other the B-word (not “Babe”), that wouldn’t give me permission to say that to my wife. I might not want my wife and her sisters to say that to each other, but I would also not argue that I should have the right, too. Nor would it mean the same thing. Her relationship with her sisters is different than the one she has with me.

The N-word, when said from a white person to a black person, carries a history with it that is different from the history when one black person says it to another. Perhaps you agree with Pitts that it still carries an oppressive energy no matter who says it, but you can’t deny that it’s different depending on who’s saying it.

And I like this answer, which is technically a question: Why do you want the right to say it anyway? Just don’t.

The video below comes from CNN and I think offers a pretty good treatment of the word, as good as you can get in 10 minutes. It addresses something we didn’t, the fact that there is no word you can use for white people that has anywhere near the meaning the N-word does. A word of warning: The N-word, the real one, is used several times.

Following the first story I got a call from a woman who said she was 92. She had no idea “negro” was no longer a word we use. She also said “I never say (the N-word),” only she used the real word. Later on in our conversation she said it again. Maybe that’s what we should be talking about, the act of saying what we “never” say.

16 thoughts on “Our conversation about a word that starts with ‘N’

  1. How shameful. Now, if the words used were “Honkie’ or “Whitey” would we be having the same conversation?

    I didn’t think so.

  2. Micheel, your comment is addressed briefly toward the end of this column in the line about the video:” It addresses something we didn’t, the fact that there is no word you can use for white people that has anywhere near the meaning the N-word does.”

    You’re not the first to make the argument you’ve posted here, but find me any history where those words carry anywhere near the history the “N-word” does. Refer to the long quote by Pitts.

    Steven Gardner
    Kitsap Sun

  3. Steven, I just looked up the word “Negro” in my M-W dictionary, a few years (or generations) old.

    The word was not considered vulgar, but a word to describe a racial group, as was the word “Caucasian”.

    But we, in this enlightened nation, still use the old southern method for defining just who is Negro, or Black (a really demeaning term at the time). “One drop of Negro blood makes that person a Negro.”

    The child who started all this is of mixed race; the President is of mixed race; many people today are of mixed race. Yet we call the President “Black”, because of his skin color.

    I learned the difference, and the meaning of the two words in school, as a child, during WWII. I learned that one was derogatory, and unacceptable, and the reason for it’s origin; the other a proper noun. And I grew up in the South, where the usage was almost interchangeable.

    I learned this in the ’40s.

    Sad that so few know the difference 70 years later.

  4. The issue is not the use of the word negro. The issue is this:

    Principal Alves used the actual N-word, not the term “N-word,” to explain to a student that it wasn’t like another word. She again used the actual N-word, not the term “N-word,” more than once to explain to the student’s mother the reason why she used it in conversation with the student. She was advised by the school district not to use the actual N-word again, but did when she called the child’s father to apologize. She then went on leave while the district investigates.

  5. Thank you for your very well written article, I sincerely hope it provides some needed clarity in this unfortunate matter. As the “white” grandmother of 2 “black” children, a resident and professional in Poulsbo, I am shocked and disheartened by the repeated public posts and comments that “blacks should stop being so sensitive”, “blacks need to get over it”, and “their inability to get over it is the problem, not the use of the word”. I want to believe that as a society we have come farther than these types of sentiments. In reality, it appears that many have simply silenced the words they use, not changed their attitudes, opinions or beliefs. I am extremely concerned about the child who is at the center of all of this. He was right to go to his mother with the story of what happened, and his mother was right to petition the principal and the district, this is the way that understanding, learning and change occurs. Neither the child nor his mother are in control of the outcome, yet run the risk of being ostracized for questioning the actions of a public employee who is now “on leave” because of them. My greatest fear is that, while the principal enjoys a publically funded paycheck and an outpouring of support, this racially blended family, their child, children at the school, and members of our community will begin to question the idea of speaking out against intolerance of any kind, based on the outcome of this situation. I ask the North Kitsap School District and members of this community to support actions that will immediately implement a ZERO TOLERANCE policy towards all socially insensitive behavior.

  6. This entire conversation is not an actual conversation at all, but a scripted performance. The script was created by the victim-worship industry and has resulted in mindless behavior by those who are susceptible to pro-forma acknowledgements of imagined guilt and overcome by the fear that someone may something nasty about them.

    It is very strange. Supposedly, it is the African=American community who abhors this particular word, except when it is used by them. If this is the case, I think the African-American community ought to shut up and focus on important matters, which do not include the nasty names by which other races may refer to them, but do certainly include the measureable fact that their own children are killing each other at what ought to be a frightening level. This nonsense about the power of a single 6-letter word is nothing more than a ruse to evade responsibility for the massive failure of a people who, even when they were enslaved had a great humanity, but since emancipation, have managed, in large part, to retain the mantle of the oppressed while ignoring the possibilities of the free.

  7. Thanks for the clarification as to what actually took place.

    As a person that gets upset when I hear the word under discussion I must say that for the first time I think you are completely off base with every thing else you say.

    If a word is truly hurtful, and the one under discussion is, then it makes no difference who says it to whom. If a word is truly offensive it can never be alright for use based upon a criteria of who is using it and toward whom.

    While the word under discussion has a long and storied history, for you to describe a difference and imply that honky and cracker are OK is beyond the pale and not up to your usual standards.

    All three of the aforementioned words are racially charged and of all three should receive the same response and never be excused because of who uttered them to whom.

    For you to imply in any way that these words are acceptable conditionally is just off base and impossible to justify.

    I suggest this paper stop it with the hyphens. Like … they change nothing.

  8. Mr. Ripley, This entire conversation is, in fact, NOT a scripted performance, was written by me and not with the aid of the “victim worship industry”. Your name now joins many others in the “they should just shut up” category. You must be forgetting the “white” people who mindlessly shoot people in movie theaters and schools.

  9. I don’t care who calls me either of the B-words and suspect my spouse wouldn’t, either.

    We don’t use the n-word and haven’t in front of our child (who is, like me, mixed race), but she at least knows what Negro means and has for some years as a simple matter of education. Though the latter word is a bit antiquated (like coloured), I apparently missed the memo that its usage was considered a horrid thing. This may have something to do with the fact that I see myself as a human being. The n-word doesn’t get a pass on the basis of race or ethnic origin, and its utterance wouldn’t harm me because it is reflective of that individual.

    Had I been one of the parents, the principal’s comparative word usage wouldn’t have bothered me. It illustrated a point during an important teaching moment. Frankly, I’d be more concerned my 11 year old didn’t know something as simple as the meaning of Negro, and was discouraged from doing so in the name of political correctness gone awry. Yes, I understand why it might disturb the parents after she used the word despite being otherwise instructed, but again, I wouldn’t have cared because the context was clear.

  10. Steve appreciate what you did here , it is a great explanation of the issues , and clarifies the situation at hand . Agree with your analysis of much of thing it is off the mark . is .saying it is perhaps off the mark .To me it is closer to calling a mate “ My B>>>ch and someone else saying it . Both would be inappropriate in any kind of community setting . Perhaps with close friends or relatives but if others are hearing it your off the mark . In art or conversations in setting with others you are not sure of the impact it is just as wrong . This in my view of what some call reversed discrimination , actually discrimination is just that , discrimination regardless of race . But the attention to it is unfortunately allowed , based on prejudice also , one method of miss use based on race . Just as wrong , not limited to race of who can use the word or who can not .Race gives no reason to lack respect . It is no different then a white person using that word, even if the intention is as not based or a pejorative use . Last week a person drove their car within my close listening range with windows down and rap booming from their car with the N word being repeated over and over again , it was as offensive to to me as if black person was doing it , in fact more so , not because the driver was white ,he could have been black because the word I consider something that has no neutrality in the confines of use or in music either .Or does it give the person playing the music regardless of race any kind of privilege , that word has a history of being used in dire circumstance throughout our history and I NO ways Ok for the person using it because of the setting or use when others can hear it that they have no knowledge of how they will receive it . . Today some people use as a means of identification of another human being . Its just wrong period . In fact just as wrong , if not more so then the what we are speaking to here.

    Also I often read Pitts and he is right on on some issues . He is also a source of the most racist and condemnations of those with a conservative slant . Not as blatant as the recent MSNBC tweet who mocked conservatives with a tweet based on a coke commercial that used a bi racial couple in an ad , the tweet stated conservatives would over look the sweet family setting , the cute little girl using cheerios as an example of getting a new puppy . The tweet claimed the bi racial actor family would cause those who vote republican problems enjoying the ad . MSNBC CEO apologized later and stated it did not represent their organization . A couple of weeks before a similar claim and ridicule came when Romney released a picture of a family gathering , one of his kids had adopted a bi racial lifted the host and others mocked the Romney family and used the little child as a joke saying it represent republicans with only one in the family portrait of a different race. Pitts for example used conservative leaders as an example of false celebration of Martin Luther King because of the quotes they used to celebrate his birthday . As if when we celebrate Lincoln we have to celebrate his view that he stated that because he wanted blacks to be free , it did not mean he would want a black dining with him . Or because we celebrate Washington or Lincoln’s birthday a black person would have to celebrate the fact blacks could be slaves . King is a National Hero , and using Him or any black person as a litmus test to agree with on certain views means we have to go along with all views . Pittt’s can be quite abrasive , and sometimes seeing prejudice and anti black motives based on his own political prejudices , no different then MSNBC does . Not a source I would use to help understand the point here of why respecting another person use of the N’’ word . Respect is not limited to race . It is a matter of respect and civility , the same respect we should afford all people regardless of race in the use of derogatory words that puts a historical hatred linked to so many crimes against humanity , and pejorative way of doing it .

    The principle unfortunately will always have this following her , its our PC culture, but all of us need some sensitivity training based on the labels we use , even if trying to be neutral in the way we use it . The fact is we are a wounded culture , split on morality and divisions . Your over all blog here was quite excellent , but I found those points hurting it to reach others that perhaps are some unsure why the fuss is so much about this . It should be a fuss , but the perception of what we are hearing is confounded by the way other issues and comments are made .

  11. Steven, I find your following words heavy on political correctness and light on logic:

    1)”If I call my wife ‘Babe’ I get no criticism.”
    Steve, in no way does “Babe” equate with the “N-word.”
    Let’s talk apples and apples and say you call your wife the “C-word.” You call her that in private, in public, amongst friends, relatives and strangers. Now, seriously, would you be logically offended if another person calls her the “C-word?”

    2)”Neither ‘negro’ or the other ‘N-word’ are considered acceptable anymore, but one was never neutral.”
    Steve, seriously? “Negro” is now “the other N-word?”
    I guess George Raveling has a problem. You see, he was handed MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech by MLK himself, as MLK was walking off the stage. The value of that document is $3 million(?).
    What should George do? That document contains “the other N-word” eleven times.
    Should he burn it? Lock it away, never to see light again? Cross out the “other N-words” and write over them “African-Americans?”

    3)Your acceptance of the principal’s suspension, although it is “not technically a suspension.”
    Steve, when one of limited intellect equates “Negro” with the “N-word,” it might sometimes be required to actually say the “N-word.”

    How is the black community ever going to address their following problems if they insist on calling each other the “N-word” and become irate when others follow suit:

    1) According to our Centers for Disease Control, the 2008-2010 black per-capita homicide rate, for males 10-24, was 21 times the rate for whites.
    2) According to the FBI, over half of all murders committed in the U.S. in 2011, were perpetrated by blacks. During that period, blacks comprised 12.9% of our population.
    3) According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 73% of black births are illegitimate.

    From the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and 2010 Census:
    Black percentage of U.S. population = 13.1%

    Top 10 U.S. cities for gun homicides (per capita), and percentage of black residents:
    1) New Orleans 60.2%
    2) Detroit 82.7%
    3) Baltimore 63.7%
    4) Oakland 28%
    5) Newark 52.4%
    6) St. Louis 49.2%
    7) Miami 19.3%
    8) Richmond 50.6%
    9) Philadelphia 43.4%
    10) Washington D.C. 50.7%

  12. Dona Marina, what in the world do your statistics have to do with the issue at hand? You also must be forgetting the statistics of “white” criminals involved in shooting police officers, school, mall and movie theater shootings, etc. This isn’t an issue of crime statistics, it’s an issue of an employee of a publically funded institution, whom even after instructed to stop the use of a socially unacceptable word continued to do so. Are you saying that because the crime rates of some black communities are high that it’s ok to use a word that has discriminatory undertones? WOW.

  13. Did anyone approve the teacher’s approved cirriculum? A play about segregation where the language of the Jim Crow laws is recited verbatim? Is that an appropriate lesson for 5th graders? Are they 10 or 11 years old? The teacher was using her students to make a political statement or stance. Why else was the Principal in the classroom for the first practice? They knew there was going to be trouble. What I’m wondering is why the teacher’s actions are not under review. The student had had some trouble before, the teacher knew he was bi-racial, and he asked to be excused because he was uncomfortable. Sounds more like a power struggle between a teacher and a child. And the Principal lost.

    Now, if you have a teacher that doesn’t or can’t consider the consequences of his/her actions on the students, you should take them out of the classroom. If you have a teacher that understands the consequences of his/her actions and forges ahead, you should take them out of the classroom.

    It’s not OK to use students or brainwash them or terrorize them or make them pay for centuries of bad adult behavior.

  14. Randi Strong-Petersen, I stated the statistics to show what a deplorable state the African-American community is in and highlight the pettiness of an argument over the use of the “N-word” in light of those statistics.

    Are you a racist, Randi?
    Why, when I quote stats from the FBI, CDC and the U.S. Census proving that, per capita, blacks are much more violent than other races, do you insist on bringing “white” criminals into the equation? Did you absorb the factual statistics? How on earth will blacks ever solve their problems when people like you refuse to accept the existence of those problems?

    Randi, there are major problems in the black community, with the major problem being their 73% illegitimacy rate.
    Want to help the black community – teach personal responsibility and quit giving them a pass on the use of vile words, like the “N-word.”

  15. Steve. Thank you for your thoughtful piece on this story. Two points: First, I think the context is very important. This was about a teachable moment. It wasn’t a rant or an outrage. It was the opportunity to help students understand their own history. Second, when we ban words it’s even worse that banning books. You won’t change history with bans, you’ll just make it less understandable.

  16. Steven Gardner and Richard Walker:
    It has come to my attention (MSNBC) that there are now an additional 2 racist words; “Obamacare” and “thug.” I’m having trouble knowing which words I can and cannot speak, especially as how there is no Politically Correct Dictionary. I come to you two as you have offered yourselves up as authorities on which words different races can say, and when.

    Let’s see if I’ve got this right. We can’t say the following words but we can say other words that mean the same thing:
    1) N-word = “The N-word”
    2) Negro = “The other N-word”
    3) Obamacare = “The O-word”
    4) Thug = “The T-word”

    Petty. Petty. Petty.
    With the major problems confronting the black community, the best you can do to solve those problems is to ostracize whites who use the same language as blacks? Petty.

    Blacks are being decimated from within by their inner-city culture, which includes the rule, “Don’t be no snitch.”
    Blacks are being decimated from without by America’s newest “victims” – illegal aliens. Illegal aliens are the biggest threat to the employment of blacks, who suffer our country’s highest unemployment rate.

    If we are truly concerned about our black brothers, let’s attack their illegitimacy rate, prevent illegal aliens from competing for jobs and services with American blacks and quit being petty over vocabulary.

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