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(RNN) – Throughout America's long struggle with racism - from the days of the transatlantic slave trade to racial profiling - the use of what is now euphemistically called the N-word has been at the forefront of the debate.
Though the word is accepted within certain groups, the N-word remains the most polarizing and toxic word in American English.
Dr. Jennifer Woodard, a professor of electronic media communications at Middle Tennessee State University, calls the word "a powerful signifier in the unequal distribution of power between African-Americans and predominately white people" that began with American slavery.
"There is no racial slang word that is the equivalent for other groups that is as powerfully humiliating and hate-filled as the N-word is for black people when it is directed at us from outside the culture," Woodard said. "It was used to mock, manage and humiliate slaves and enforce the idea that they were less than people - subhuman. Today, when it is used by people outside of the African-American culture, it is still a word that brings back all of the anguish and pain that we [blacks] suffered as a people."
The use of the N-word in rap and hip hop music has been cited as a reason why the word continues to be used outside of black culture, since the lyrics of popular songs are memorized and repeated by all races. A race relations expert said that is not a valid justification.
"There are some whites who use hip hop and black culture as an excuse for the allowance for them to use it when in fact they use it in private and now want to use it in public," said Chad Dion Lassiter, of the National Association of Social Workers.
Donald Sterling's comments regarding black men and basketball has pushed the issue of racial discrimination back into the limelight. Sterling's comments come months after the backlash of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman actions after the 2014 NFC Championship game, and forced a discussion in the national media about how terms are used to describe black men.
This, along with the ongoing discussion of other racially charged terms in our culture, like the name of the professional football team in Washington, highlights the need for answers to race conversations.
In a 2013 Pew Research Social and Demographic Trends study, 45 percent of Americans said the U.S. has made "a lot" of progress toward racial equality since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963. However, with 49 percent of those polled adding that "a lot" more could be done, could the used of the N-word and coded buzzwords be hindering America's progress?
The Anti-Defamation League says the N-word is derived from the Latin word "niger," meaning black. The pronunciation as it stands now is from northern England and Ireland.
The word became more commonly used during the transatlantic slave trade when it was used as the first name of a captured African if a white person had the same name. Throughout slavery and after its abolishment, the N-word was used to rally supporters of Jim Crow laws and segregation through the 20th century.
"The historical use of the word and the framework of white supremacy that oppressed and killed blacks during the Middle Passage, slave plantations, Reconstruction and Jim Crow; now, the ‘New Jim Crow era' of mass incarceration makes it a troublesome and burdensome word," Lassiter said.
Lassiter says African-Americans have tried to take it back through "their suffering in a therapeutic manner" and make it more aligned with a black cultural context, both interpersonally and in entertainment.
"The challenge is not the N-word," Lassiter said, "but white supremacy and a society that pretends to be post-racial but is in fact in denial with regards to institutional racism."
He said that poor blacks and victims of racial profiling may see the word used toward them by authority figures.
"Words do harm," Lassiter said, "but the treatment that accompanies the word is more dangerous than the word itself. Thus, a police officer who racially profiles and plants drugs on inner-city males and females of color is once again providing the N-word treatment."
A big question regarding the politics of the N-word is who can and cannot say it. A 2013 NPR article by Gene Demby says the "contexts and consequences" of the word come with more blurred lines than clear ones.
"Like talking about race more broadly, talking about N-word requires us to hold different and at times contradictory ideas in our heads all at once," Demby said. "We have to acknowledge that we have different histories and live in different spaces, and that those spaces come with their own shared (or not-so-shared) understandings."
Since Trayvon Martin's death and the subsequent coverage of the trial of George Zimmerman, the plight of African-Americans – especially black males – has drawn increased mainstream discussion.
As the use of the N-word has diminished in public discourse, other words have replaced it. Words like "thug", "urban", and "inner-city" have taken its place, and the code is not lost on anyone.
The new buzzwords were recently on display during the 2014 NFC Championship game, when Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman showed his exuberance in a postgame interview that many found unsettling. The following Monday, the website Deadspin noted that the word "thug" was said more than 600 times across several media platforms and all followed comments about Sherman.
It even forced Sherman, a Stanford University-educated man in his mid-20s, to ask if "thug" was the new N-word.
"Let's not kid ourselves," Woodard said. "Thug, urban, inner city are all euphemisms for 'African-American.' But none of these words carry the historical pain and symbolic meaning that the N-word does. Still, they are often used by the media to mean African-American in a derogatory manner. It's a new, more subtle form of racism."
Time writer John McWhorter disagreed with Sherman's assertion, saying another word would further frustrate the N-word's definition when many African-Americans use it as a familiar and popular definition of themselves.
"I'm not sure there's any point in elevating 'thug' as yet another word called a slur only when white people use it," McWhorter said. "We're stuck with the endless misunderstandings this creates with the N-word already. Adding another one will mean only twice the mess."
This offseason, the NFL proposed a rule that would penalize a player 15 yards for any racial slur used on the field. According to a report by the University of Central Florida, 66.3 percent of the 1,700 NFL players are black.
The rule's proposal was brought after a bullying scandal rocked the Miami Dolphins locker room, where Richie Incognito, a white player, emotionally battered Jonathan Martin, a black player, with racial and homophobic epithets. The bullying was aided by black teammates, who did not object to Incognito's use of the N-word and other slurs.
Professional sports are perhaps the most racially charged form of American entertainment, dating back to Jackie Robinson's breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947. Threats of violence followed slugger Hank Aaron in his quest to break Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, and controversy erupted again after Aaron's commented about racial politics via a USA Today article celebrating the 40th anniversary of his record-breaking homer.
Like other words that can be offensive to persons of different races and sexes, the N-word brings up an important question: can or should the word be removed from our language?
The word's symbolic death and funeral by the NAACP at its 2007 conference in Detroit made national headlines, but Woodard said we shouldn't be afraid of the word - we just shouldn't say it.
"People shouldn't be fearful of the use of the N-word. Instead they should treat it like the C-word in reference to women," Woodard said. "Don't use it. It is a mean, hateful word. It has negative connotations. It will still start a fight between races. If a word is that powerful – should we use it in casual conversation or polite conversation? No."
Both Woodard and Lassiter agree, however, that the media should be responsible for taking the word and turning it into a learning experience so the general public can understand its power and help abandon it.
"Whenever a legitimate occasion occurs, we should definitely use that moment to educate or re-educate the public on the harmful nature of the word and its historical significance in undermining the freedom and agency of African-Americans in the United States," Woodard said.
"The thought leaders, those of us who have a platform, and everyday people should direct the conversation and frame the debate. The media can provide us with the outlet," Lassiter said. "The discussion should be a generational discussion. But once again, I am not worried about the N-word but about poverty, homelessness, crime and punishment, white supremacy, homophobia, xenophobia, ethnocentrism and intolerance."
When the Civil Rights Act was signed into law in 1964, more than 60 percent of African-Americans polled said race relations were improving, according to the Pew Research Center.
On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation and the March on Washington, just 26 percent of blacks agreed.
But with the N-word and other slurs used on social media by people to announce their prejudices, the age of racial epithets may not be an occurrence of a "post-racial" society.
"We need to acknowledge that even when we use the word, it is still a form of internalized racism [and] self-hatred," Woodard said. "I really don't understand why we won't quit using such a harmful and negative term to describe ourselves. There is nothing empowering about the N-word in the African-American culture or out of the culture."
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