The racist tirade by comedian and "Seinfeld" actor Michael Richards has once again sparked a debate over the N-word, especially among black people. Reverend Jesse Jackson is calling for a complete ban of the word. Comedian Damon Wayans was fined several hundred dollars after using the word more than 15 times in a recent performance. He told the audience "I'll be damned if the white man uses that word last."
Graduate Rookie Reporter Veralyn Williams first began questioning the use of the N-word when she started studying African American history in college. She filed this report…but first a language note for listeners: the N-word is said several times throughout the story.
REPORTER: It never fails. About 3 times a week I'm trying to read on the train, and a bunch of rowdy teens get on and mess with my concentration.
What bothers me is not the fact that they're loud, because the train is always loud during rush hour, it's the fact that they're cursing up a storm and throwing the N-word around like its nothing.
TEEN: This nigga' was always...
REPORTER: My parents were raised in Sierra Leone and were stricter then a lot of Bronx parents. I never got those $200 Jordon sneakers everyone was wearing even though I begged for them. I'm not sure what goes on in other black families, but growing up in my house, the N-word just wasn't used. Here's my mom.
MOM: I can't even think of… it's not even part of my vocabulary. I can't even think of a situation where I'd have to use that word. I can't. Even if I'm angry and cursing I'm somebody out. That's not one of the word's I'd use. I'd use other words, but not that word.
REPORTER: Last summer, I was a counselor at a camp for kids who, like me, were born in West Africa.
BALU: My name is Balu Fafanna. I'm seven years old
REPORTER: I'm gonna ask you a question okay. do you know the N-word?
REPORTER: Do you know what I'm talking about when I say the N-word?
REPORTER: Ok, if I say the word this is the only time you can use it okay? Do you know the word nigger?
BALU: Yes? REPORTER: Where do you hear this word?
BALU: I hear it around the street and from gangsters.
REPORTER: Describe what a gangster is.
BALU: a gansta' is a man or a boy who puts their pants down and shows their boxers and smokes and then they get crazy and then they start stealing.
REPORTER: I used to feel the same exact way. But then I entered the real world where not everyone grew up in my house. My ex-boyfriend uses the word all the time.
DAVID: My name is David…My friends call me scrooge.
REPORTER: I recently came across this old interview of him I did for another story.
DAVID: A shout out to all the drunk nigga's out there.
VERALYN (On Tape): Alright so….
REPORTER: I was not surprised to hear him use the word…But I was shocked to hear what came next on the tape.
VERALYN (On Tape) Okay. Well if you had a daughter, would you let her go out with an older nigga'… GUY
REPORTER: There it was…I said the word nigger. And I knew he'd get what I meant by saying it: a guy you wouldn't want your daughter to go out with.
I know, I used to say the word from time to time, but realizing I said it on tape, that's embarrassing. To me, whether it's nigga' or nigger, it represents hatred and makes me think of a person who is uneducated, lazy, and basically good for nothing. Yet I still said it. I was in a comfort zone, talking to David and it just slipped out. And I'm not the only one who says the word without thinking.
MAN ON THE STREET: It's a messed up word it shouldn't be used. It shouldn't be used by nobody.
REPORTER: Do you use the word?
MAN ON THE STREET: Sometimes yeah I'm not gonna lie.
REPORTER: Why do you use the word?
MAN ON THE STREET: I don't know. You know, nigga's use it in the hood all the time. You know what I mean?
REPORTER: Not everyone is conflicted though. I went to Harlem to ask people if they used the word, and most of them said they had no problem saying it, because they feel the meaning has changed.
MAN: Can I offer you a dental cleaning today?
REPORTER: I was stopped by this guy trying to give me a free teeth cleaning in one of those Dental vans.
VERALYN (On Tape): Can I interview you on the N-word?
MAN: On the N-word. Okay, sure.
VERALYN (On Tape): Do you use the N-word?
MAN: All the time, nigga'! (Laughs) I think it's just something that black people ought to be able to say. Because we use it not to bring each other down, but to let each other how far we came, and where we came from and what we went through.
REPORTER: Another guy actually said he'd be mad if someone told him he couldn't use the word.
VERALYN (On Tape): Why would you be mad at that?
MAN: Cause I'm a nigga myself…
VERALYN (On Tape): You identify yourself as a nigga?
VERALYN (On Tape):
MAN: Cause I'm a nigga, I can't help it
VERALYN (On Tape): so give me some characteristics of a nigga? What do you think a nigga is?
MAN: People that rob people
VERALYN (On Tape): So you identify yourself as someone that robs somebody?
MAN: Something like that
REPORTER: I couldn't believe it. 2006! And he's taking pride in a word that even to him means being a criminal… Maybe he's thinking: you can't hurt me by calling me that, if I already did myself. But I think he's just giving himself a free pass to be ignorant. I was talking to Dre Obe, he's the editor of The Shield magazine at my school, Hunter College . We were discussing how words can dehumanize, and he quoted a friend who used to be in a gang.
OBE: He was saying it took more energy, like when you're saying: "okay I'm going to kill this nigga', I'm going to kill this nigga'." You didn't think anything about it. It was like nigga' became that negative thing. But if you think about it and say "I'm going to kill that that brother, I'm going to kill my brother," they would've thought more about it.
REPORTER: To me that logic is one of the reasons slavery existed in this country for so long. Black people weren't considered human beings, they were niggers and that it made it a lot easier to treat them like animals. The one thing almost everyone I talked to said is that, it's never acceptable for white people to use the N-word.
MAN: I think that word has no power unless you use it in a derogatory way.
REPORTER: I was talking to this guy near Wall Street.
MAN: I'm white and I have no problem saying "aw c'mon you know you're my nigga'" just like that. I've said it before and I'll continue to say it and if somebody African American has a problem with it they don't obviously live where I live or they don't know who my friends are or who I date. Words can only hurt if you let them. It's cliché-ish and corny, but it's true.
REPORTER: Not when a word has history. I did feel way more offended hearing a white guy say the word and disregard that history. But playing devil's advocate: can I blame him if, growing up he heard nigga' being thrown around in the music he listened to and from his friends yelling on the subway?
We can't have it both ways: either we're honoring the history or we're not. As for me I'm trying not to use the word at all any more. For WNYC, I'm Rookie Reporter Veralyn Williams.
Mix Engineer and Producer: Pejk Malinovksi Additional production by Sally Herships and Melissa Robbins
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