History behind n-word emphasizes impact

Andreea Sabau, Executive News Editor

A boy walks through a hallway at school and hears racially offensive language. He has two options. He can ignore the racism and keep walking or he can speak up against it. Graphic by Zoe Bendoff.

Every time junior Lauren McGinnis hears what she believes is “the most powerful word in the English language” — the n-word — being used, waves of discomfort and frustration wash over her. She did not think that asking her white peers in an Instagram post to remove the word from their vocabulary was an unreasonable request, but the derogatory replies that she received from her followers hurt deeply.

“You can’t just take away a word’s meaning,” said McGinnis. “That was a word that my grandpa, in deep south Florida during segregation, would hear before he got spit on. That was a word that Emmett Till would hear before he got beaten to death.”

Neal Lester, director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University, said in a phone interview that the use of the n-word against black people has a “bloodsoaked history.” When Europeans enslaved Africans in the 1500s, the word was a neutral descriptor for black people. By 1619, when slavery originated in America, the word gained negative connotations — “criminal, unintelligent, unattractive, dirty, evil” — that many people still associate with the African American identity today.

“There’s still racism,” said Lester. “There’s still people being lynched. There’s still … violence against black people. 

“The way that [the n-word] is used today is part of the way it was used back in slavery time.”

When McGinnis hears people using the n-word at school, she said she confronts them about it. She believes class discussions to address the use of insensitive language and its significance in terms of racism are crucial for making progress in society.

Lester said when he educates students and communities about racism, his intention is not to tell people what they can or cannot say but to get them to think about how their words affect others. 

“Anyone can say [the n-word],” said Lester. “The question is, should you say it?”

A common misconception about the n-word is that African Americans can reclaim the word and thus have sole agency to say the word within their community, said Lester. He believes people should move beyond this way of thinking to examine systems of oppression in a broader context.

“You can’t reclaim anything you’ve never owned.

“There’s a lot of internalized racism that black folks experience, … and when black people call themselves [the n-word], I don’t really know if that’s a term of endearment,” Lester said. 

In December 2018, a clip featuring three sophomore students and the use of derogatory language, including the n-word, circulated among students. Two of the students addressed the camera using racial slurs and profanity, while the other student responded in laughter.

Although junior Abby Tzinberg did not hear anyone come to the defense of the students who made the racist video, she said she has noticed students excusing their friends for their use of derogatory language before.

“I know a lot of people will just be like, ‘Oh, it’s my friend, and I know that they’re not a bad person, so it doesn’t matter,’” said Tzinberg. “But it does matter because every time language that is offensive is used, it’s contributing to a community that believes offensive language is acceptable.” 

Lester said the growing popularity of rap and hip hop music has normalized the use of the n-word, yet saying the word while singing along to a song does not make its usage acceptable. For those who have had the n-word used toward them, the word can have a dehumanizing effect and “wreak havoc.” When non-black people use the word, they demonstrate a lack of compassion or respect for others’ experiences.  

According to social studies teacher Stephanie Jund, she addressed the racist video in one of her classes by encouraging her students to empathize with minority students to understand the difficulties they endure.

“To combat [insensitive language] is … not being afraid to stop and say, ‘Hey, why was that funny to you?’ if someone makes a comment about a race or a group of people,” Jund said.

McGinnis said she was not surprised when the racially-insensitive video began to circulate among students because of how often she hears the language being used at Glenbrook North in the halls among friends or directly toward her. Regardless of the context, hearing the n-word from a white person always makes her uncomfortable, which is why she believes there is no acceptable context to use the word. 

“I feel like, when you teach racism in your classes, you’re teaching about segregation, about slavery, and people can’t connect that [racism is] still happening and that it’s happening here,” McGinnis said.