Ernest Owens | Never O’Clock: using the N-word


The Ernest Opinion | Why the illusion of a “post-racial society” creates willful ignorance


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Ernest Owens
The Ernest Opinion

Photo by Ernest Owens


“No she didn’t.”

That was my initial reaction when I heard recently that actress Gwyneth Paltrow casually tweeted the N-word during a Jay-Z and Kanye West concert in Paris. It was no coincidence that she was alluding to their hit rap song “Ni**as in Paris.” But given the negative connotation of the word and an overwhelming media backlash, you would think she would have later apologized. But instead, she tried to justify it by saying she was referring to the song’s title. And that was it.

Now, I am not so foolish as to denounce Paltrow as a racist, but it is for that very reason I find this incident alarming. Casually using racial slurs such as the N-word without the slightest sense of malice might be more detrimental to society than using them with cruel intent.

Our societal mindset has shifted to thinking that such slurs do not have the same impact as they did in the past. Many scholars and critics, arguing for the idea of a “post-racial society,” claim people see beyond race and more into individuality. And of course, these same people point to the inauguration of President Barack Obama as an indication of the demise of racial divides. Since then, however, I have felt that even though racism may not be obvious, the socialization of the N-word has become more ingrained in my social circles. People blame it on rap music, but our culture in general has been laid back in the careless use of slurs. Only in heated racial situations (for instance, the Don Imus scandal and suspicions of George Zimmerman) have we cared so much as to complain when slurs were used. And for a while, I was naive enough to believe that as long as the N-word was used without ill intentions, it was fine.

Among my black friends, the N-word seemed like a word only we were entitled to say. However, the more comfortable we became using it, the more people of other races thought it was appropriate to use. Entertainers have used the use the word casually, as a joke even, ignoring the oppression behind it.

However, it was not until I visited Yad Vashem, a Holocaust museum in Israel, a few weeks ago that I got a wake-up call. While gazing at the displays, I saw hundreds of Nazi propaganda posters. They were covered with defamatory images of Jews with the labels “Untermensch” (subhuman), “Judenschwein” (Jewpig) and “Jewsow” (a common depiction of Jews nursing on a sow).

As devastating as racism and bigotry were during the Holocaust, they were just as demeaning in American history with slavery. And even though we rarely hear the black racial insults “tar-baby,” and “coon,” what remains left in our modern-day vernacular is the N-word.

“When is it ever the right moment to use the N-word?” an Asian friend of mine asked me the other day. My response: “Never o’clock.”

No matter how many rap songs you listen to that make it sound catchy with a jingle, or whether you end it with an “a” suffix, or how many black friends you have that say it’s fine with them — you cannot rewrite history to make it acceptable. Even though we are now living in a society where it would be insane to post the N-word to discriminate in public establishments, that still does not give us the luxury of willfully ignoring the past struggles of others, even if our intentions are not spiteful. Just as most would find it offensive to wear a Swastika casually, it’s just as toxic to say a word that was used to subjugate millions of people.

Perhaps there is hypocrisy in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s song title. But their use alone does not justify one’s decision to say it themselves.

As for myself, I have struggled to find the rationale for its place in my vocabulary. But if it means anything to my ancestors and the adversity they faced, perhaps it is a word that should just be left in history.

Ernest Owens, an Undergraduate Assembly representative, is a rising College junior from Chicago. His email address is owense@sas.upenn.edu. The Ernest Opinion appears weekly during the school year.

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