A discussion about an "ugly, awful, hateful word" revealed differing perceptions about its use among panelists, and an audience of several dozen.
Rather than providing pat answers, the discussion, held at the North Side campus of Community College of Allegheny County on March 28 and sponsored by the Pittsburgh Black Media Federation, explored the fascination and fear surrounding the notorious word.
In the firestorm surrounding Seinfeld's Michael Richard's much-YouTubed racist meltdown in a comedy club, some cities have suggested banning the word entirely, saying it has no place in contemporary discourse. While no such movement is officially afoot in Pittsburgh, the panelists discussed where the word belongs ... assuming it belongs anywhere at all.
"You can't abolish a word," said panelist Philip Stephenson, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette arts and culture writer and current communications manager for the Pittsburgh Public Theatre. "If we obliterate something from the canon, it's revisionist history."
"I don't think we should get rid of it altogether," agreed Dr. Ed Rhymes, author of When Racism Is Law and Prejudice Is Policy. "The n-word is part of our holocaust; it is part of our history. To eradicate it completely is mindless." Stephenson said he doubted Jews would accept having to replace the term "Holocaust" with "the h-word."
Luqman A. Salaam, local spoken word artist and writer, says it's unfair to criticize young people, both black and white, for using the term. "The context of the word hasn't been taught," says Salaam, who is his early 30s. "If you ask the average 15-year-old, they couldn't tell you what it means. They don't know the lineage of the pain, the context of that word. We shouldn't berate young people for using it -- we haven't taught them what it means."
Salaam also spoke of a cultural schizophrenia where the realities of racism and the legacy of slavery aren't discussed; making it difficult for a young white hip-hop fan to realize that casually dropping a term she hears in 50 Cent lyrics is hateful. "Is it OK for white America to use it and deconstruct it: 'Black people say it all the time, how come I can't?'"
Moderator Tene Croom postulated that rap music might be part of the problem: "With rap being so prevalent across the board, and a white kid says 'my nigga' and gets his face pounded ..."
"Everything that has gone wrong with black people has been laid at the feet of rappers," said Rhymes. "We treat hip hop with a broad brush." He says it's inaccurate to eliminate the consciousness-raising of a group like Public Enemy because of its use of the term.
When people want to use the word, Rhymes said, the desire often stems from privilege, the assumption that all things should be open to them. Stephenson noted that while he uses the term himself in particular contexts, he does so only among black people. He told of a longstanding white friend asking why a newer black friend was allowed to address Stephenson as "nigga" while the white guy was not. "I will consider assaulting a white person who dropped that bomb on me," Stephenson said.
"So you can be my friend, but you can't be my nigga," Croom countered.
"I wouldn't call him a Polack," Stephenson replied.
Black people are allowed to use the term among themselves, said panelist (and City Paper columnist) Kimberly Ellis. "We use the language of the oppressor to turn it on its head," she said. "You are allowed to use the term because you are not robbing the humanity of that inter-group."