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Commentary: The N-Word

By Dr. Sheron Patterson, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

The n-word is one of the most racially divisive words in our vocabulary. For centuries it has been the traditional way that non-African Americans demeaned and devalued African American people. The word cuts African American people to the quick because of its vile sting. It dredges up memories of our country at some of its worst points like slavery and Jim Crow. In an ironic twist, most recently the n-word has been embraced by a large segment of mostly younger African Americans. They look over the painful past and have refashioned the word into a term of endearment or even a greeting. The n-word is routinely a part of rap music, as it signifies their solidarity with each other.

So is the n-word positive or negative? It is prickly and precarious to determine who can use the n-word, what context the word is used, and the intent of the user is at that time. There is an unwritten, complicated code of use for the n-word. It goes like this: African Americans can use the term with each other, but people of other races cannot use the word. So, if a non-African American is listening to a favorite rap tune that includes the n-word, they have to know that it is best not to utter that word, even if they are with African American friends, who do utter it. See what I mean?

When Michael Richards, also known as "Kramer" from Seinfield fame used the n-word recently at a Los Angeles comedy club, it was anything but comedy. In the midst of his comedy routine, an African American audience member heckled Richards and he responded by calling the heckler a "n", over and over again. His n-word tirade was broadcast and downloaded on the Internet by shocked Americans coast to coast.

Richards was out of line. Hecklers are part and parcel of stand up comedy. Richards had the right to put the heckler in his place, just not with the n-word. But his use of the word created a national uproar that caused Richards to hastily seek damage control in the form of an appearance on the syndicated radio broadcast of civil rights icon the Rev. Jessie Jackson. On that broadcast, a penitent Richards explained his actions and apologized. Apology accepted "Kramer".

Now here is the really interesting part. Of course I was not in the studio with Richards or Jackson, but I believe Richard's plight must have touched Jackson in a unique way because just a few days later, Jackson was in Dallas addressing a group of local pastors. I heard him appeal to the group to help launch an end to the n-word for everybody of all colors. Jackson called the n-word, "hate speech that ignites, enrages and traps people." He even went so far as to suggest that the Dallas City Council create legislation that outlaws the word. Whether you love or hate Rev. Jackson, he has a point that America needs to hear and heed now.

Let's do it. Let's all agree to end the n-word. Let's remove it from our vocabularies, our minds, and this society. This is one word we can do without. It is confusing and totally unnecessary. Rap fans can find a new, less volatile way to express solidarity and those who want to slur American Americans with the n-word, just let it go. We are better Americans without this word.

Rev. Dr. Sheron Patterson is senior pastor of Highland Hills United Methodist Church in Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.