“State of the N-Word” address raises questions about race, identity, and society

What is the N-word? Why do people say the N-word? Why shouldn’t people say the N-word? What is the history behind the N-word?

These and many more questions were addressed during the “State of the N-Word” address Wednesday afternoon in the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University.

In recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, four panel members from the university community came together to discuss the effects of one of history’s most derogatory terms on modern society, with a particular emphasis on how the term is perceived today by the African American community.

The panel members included Marvin Woodard, Jr., the Multicultural Resource Center coordinator, Communications Professor DL Richardson, Philosophy Professor Prakash Chenjeri, and English Professor Alma Alvarez, each contributing their own unique perspective on race relations and cultural stereotypes in America.

Woodard began the discussion by explaining that he was born and raised in the Deep South, and while the word could be harmful, it mostly depended on the context in which it was used and the tone in which it was conveyed.

“As a southern black man, I have been stung and hurt by this word,” he said. “If you’re going to say it, you need to know exactly what it means.”

“You have every right to say it,” he said. “Doesn’t mean you should. You have every right to jump out that window too, doesn’t mean you should.”

Woodard went on to speak about the complicated relationship African Americans have with the word today. While the word does have very nasty connotations, he admitted, it is also a term of endearment among close friends. In many ways, he said, it is similar to the homosexual community reclaiming the word “queer.”

“More often than not, I’ve heard the term as an endearment by my family,” he said. “I do have a close group of friends where I go there … [but] it’s not used in my office.”

“I would never say that in my house,” he added.

Richardson elaborated on Woodard’s point, adding that he had heard the word directed at him here in the Ashland too, despite the city’s reputation of open-mindedness.

‘We always tend to think of how progressive we are here,” he said. “There’s not a place in the valley where I haven’t heard that word directed at me, including Ashland.”

Chenjeri spoke at length about his first experiences hearing the word when he moved from India to Mississippi, where he said he was shocked to hear it used in such a casual way.

“We were all taught the way the slaves were transported and the way they were treated,” he explained. “It has a tortured history.”

Chenjeri brought up the moral implications of trying to stamp out the usage of the word, asserting that any attempt to censor word usage was “moral policing.”

“One of the things people often ask is: should that word even be used?” he asked. “As a culture, should we even make an attempt … to somehow take away the force of that word?”

“I’m sure some of you are familiar with the caste system we have in India,” he said. “We have perfected the art of insulting people. Each culture has it’s own problems.”

“Culturally, it does have a tremendous amount of power,” he said. “I want to keep that word alive … we unpack it’s history, we look at where it came from, and we look at the etymology.”

Alvarez brought up the question of social norms, and whether we would see things differently if it was widely accepted.

“What if all of a sudden, a large group of people decides using the word to describe Obama becomes a good or acceptable thing?” she asked. “As a culture, we haven’t been able to do an honest investigation of the term.”

Alvarez also brought up the question of censorship, and who should have the power to decide what’s appropriate in public discourse and what isn’t.

“My position is never to censor,” she said. “Who are the people who get to decide whether something is appropriate or not appropriate, especially in the arts? Who are the arbiters?”

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