How the N-word became the ‘atomic bomb of racial slurs’

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Editor’s Note: This conversation contains a racial slur.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yesterday, Charlotte television reporter Steve Crump accepted an apology from Brian Eybers. The two men were involved in a confrontation last week during which Eybers used the N-word. And Crump recorded it.

Crump was on assignment in Charleston, South Carolina, reporting on hurricane recovery when he walked past Eybers.

And a warning: The next two videos include use of the N-word.

STEVE CRUMP, WBTV: What did you call me?

BRIAN EYBERS: What?

STEVE CRUMP: What did you just call me?

BRIAN EYBERS: I called you sir.

STEVE CRUMP: No, you didn’t call me sir. You called me the N-word, right?

BRIAN EYBERS: I did. I believe I did call you the N-word.

You’re a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) idiot. You’re ignorant. So, you really are a n—–, then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the N-word is one of the most contentious words in the English language.

Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault its origins and use with Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy as part of our year-long Race Matters Solutions series.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Professor Kennedy, thank you for joining us.

RANDALL KENNEDY, Harvard University: Thank you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I don’t have to tell you we are dealing with a very contentious word, but it wasn’t always that way. So, take us back when it was more benign.

RANDALL KENNEDY: It’s like many words. It has a mysterious — it sort of rises from the midst.

So, for instance, in 1619, when there are reports about the first blacks brought to British North America, they are referred to as N-I-G-G-U-H-S. Well, it doesn’t seem that that was meant in a derogatory way. It seems merely descriptive.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: When did it become the kind of word that is so controversial today?

RANDALL KENNEDY: Go back and take a look at what some black writers were saying in the 1820s, the 1830s.

They make mention of how some white people would tell their children, if you don’t behave, we’re going to put you in the n—– seat. If you don’t behave, we are going to make you sit with the n—–s.

That’s why we know that, by then, the word had become a slur.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, why are people, like, you know, a very successful, popular comedian like Larry Wilmore, who addressed the president with the word at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

LARRY WILMORE, Comedian: So Mr. President, I’m going the keep it 100.

Yo, Barry, you did it, my n—–.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But also a lot of the rappers and people, what don’t they know? They are using it as almost a term of endearment.

RANDALL KENNEDY: The infamy of n—– is — it’s a word that has been used to terrorize people, to put people down.

But it has also been used in other ways. It’s also been used as a way of putting a mirror up to racism. So, Dick Gregory titled his memoir “N—–: An Autobiography.”

Richard Pryor had a number of albums, “That N—– Crazy,” “Bicentennial N—–.” Is he using n—– to put black people down? No, he’s using it ironically. He’s sometimes using it playfully. He’s using it often as a mirror to shame racism.

RICHARD PRYOR, Comedian: And I don’t want them hip white people coming up to me and calling me no n—– or telling me n—– jokes. I don’t like it.

RANDALL KENNEDY: Then you have got people who have the idea of taking n—– back.

So, you have some people who say, well, n—– has been used to take us down. What we are going to do is grab this word and we are going to use it for our own purposes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But do they know the history of it?

RANDALL KENNEDY: Well, one of the reasons I wrote a book about this was because I got the sense that there were especially young people who were using the word who didn’t have an understanding of the history behind the word.

So, I spent 40 pages just giving instance after instance after instance of the way in which this word has been used to hurt black people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Hasn’t it also been used against other ethnic groups, Chinese, Mormons, Jews?

RANDALL KENNEDY: It’s the atomic bomb of racial slurs. It is the racial slur that has been used in other contexts, so, for instance, Palestinians, the n—–s of the Middle East, the Irish, the n—–s of Europe.

This is a term that has been generalized around the world. If you want to put somebody down, analogize them to the n—–.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Given the power of this particular word that we are discussing, the power of it to wound, what is the solution to that?

RANDALL KENNEDY: I don’t think there is a solution, other than education.

People ought to know that even if you are using the word without malevolence, even if you are attempting to use the word in an ironic way or as a term of endearment, there’s always the problem of mistake.

So, I have gotten hundreds of e-mails over the years from white kids who say the following: I’m running around with my black friends, and we are listening to rap. Is it OK if I say n—– because we are shouting the lyrics of these rap songs?

And I say to people often that it may very well be that you’re with your friend. It may very well be that you have no bad intentions. But if you are out in public, and especially if you are white, and you use this word, there is the problem of the person who’s right next to you who doesn’t know you at all, who doesn’t know what your intentions are, who doesn’t know about your friendship with your black buddy over here. But as soon as the word n—– comes out of your mouth, this person slaps you, or worse.

Simple prudence would dictate that you use this term very carefully, if ever.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Some of these younger people using it are not using the full word. They are abbreviating it.

RANDALL KENNEDY: There are some people who make a big distinction between n—a, which they say is OK, and n—–.

Now, in my view, it’s important to know about that distinction, because some people put a lot of weight on it. I don’t.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, how should people who find it so offensive and who understand the hurt associated with it respond?

RANDALL KENNEDY: What people should do is explain to their friends, to their neighbors how they feel when they confront the word n—– and why they feel the way they feel.

So, a number of years ago, I was in a book store talking about my book “N—–.” And a man said to me: Professor, I have heard all that you have to say and, you know, your — all of your analysis about why it is that sometimes n—– should be tolerated. I have heard it, but I’m going tell you something. When I hear the word n—–, I remember when that word was used by people who wouldn’t allow me to vote and who put me at the back of the bus. And when I hear that word, that’s what I think about.

That was very powerful.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Absolutely.

RANDALL KENNEDY: That was very powerful.

And what I said to him was: Sir, I understand. I understand why you do not want to hear this word.

And I think that people are going to have to talk with one another and share these stories and share these feelings. And I think that that’s the only way in which we are going to come to a higher, a deeper understanding of why people have the feelings they have with respect to this, the infamous N-word.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Professor Randall Kennedy, I’m sure you’re going to get some reactions to this, but thank you for joining us and being as honest as you have been.

RANDALL KENNEDY: Thank you.

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