January 9, 2013

The N Word

In the long, sordid history of offensive words, there's one word (it begins with an N) that's particularly offensive. Actually, I'd argue that all the others - nick, nhit, nuck, nock, namn or even nunt - pale in comparison. Though I'd argue that even those are just harmless little words. No, the worst word is one that's so loaded with history and emotion that it transcends vulgarity. You know the word I'm talking about.

Which is why this story caught my eye:

Two weeks ago, the Django Unchained cast sat down with Jake Hamilton, host of Houston’s Emmy-winning film show Jake’s Takes, at a press junket. Things went smoothly enough until Hamilton approached Jackson with a question about the movie’s controversial use of the “n-word.” Jackson insisted that Hamilton, who is white, say the word out loud; after Hamilton repeatedly refused, they moved on. It was uncomfortable.

“The most awkward moment was just seeing everyone in the room freeze, and waiting to see what my reaction was going to be,” Hamilton says today.

The internet reaction has been mixed. Many commenters claim that Hamilton should have simply said the word, while others applaud the reporter for not caving to Jackson’s demand. Hamilton says that his decision was in the best interest of the show and the network.

“Whatever the video’s doing today, making the rounds, it’s not as bad as it would be if I had actually said it,” he says.

Like I said, I think words are mostly harmless unless they're primed and fully-armed with history, context, and emotion. And that word clearly qualifies.

Would you have said it? Or would have stared Samuel Snakes-On-A-Motherfucking-Plane Jackson down and refused?

Posted by Chris at January 9, 2013 7:32 AM

This is interesting to hear...
I listened to the Slate review of that movie. Before, I was excited to see it, but afterwards, I kinda decided I wouldn't. This little news snippet solidifies that decision.

The movie is not a historical documentary, but the Slate review portrays it as a means for Tarantino to utilize historical concepts to serve his brand of entertaining film. I kinda wondered if paying money to see that violence as entertainment, made me as bad as the slave-owners who inflicted it.
And now hearing that the actors are (I'm assuming jokingly) insisting that reporters use the words (and thereby concepts) that mark that horror of time, in a way that mutes the meaning,heightens my concern.

Posted by: Lisa at January 9, 2013 8:27 AM

I don't say words that don't exist to me, so no, never. I wouldn't ever utter that "word."

Posted by: RzDrms at January 9, 2013 10:38 AM

I am physically incapable of uttering the n word. Went to Florida in my early twenties and was *horrified* to hear people using it in everyday talk. White people. In a derogatory way. Prior to that, I probably only knew of it from N.W.A. or my history books. Can't/don't/won't. It took alot of feminist theory classes to get me to say the c word too, which I can now, but don't much. Samuel L could stare me the f down and we'd still be sitting and waiting.

Posted by: rebecca at January 9, 2013 11:49 AM

I'd stare him down and refuse to say the N word.

Also - I am not a fan (by any stretch of the imagination) of Tarantino, and flatly refuse to see the movie.

Posted by: Mindy at January 9, 2013 12:39 PM

I really don't think I could say it! Especially not under pressure like that ... I don't know. The whole thing would definitely make me feel super uncomfortable.

Posted by: Heather at January 9, 2013 1:07 PM

I'll be in the minority here. I would say it in the situation. The word doesn't make me feel uncomfortable. I wouldn't use the word with hate. I've said the word before, when talking about stories or movies that use the word, like Huck Finn/Tom Swayer. But I don't use the word with hate. I don't use the word to CALL someone that name. I would never do that. But to me, words are words. It's the emotions the speaker uses when speaking those words that makes the difference.

Posted by: Kim at January 9, 2013 1:33 PM

I do not use that word to call people names or in jokes. But I am an English teacher that taught "Huck Finn" so that word was in my curriculum. When we read aloud from the novel, students were given a choice to read the word or omit it. I always spent time at the beginning of the unit to talk about the history of the word and explain that it was not okay to use today. I would use that word only in a teaching situation about racism, bullying, etc. Whenever we discussed that word we would also talk about similar words such as WOP, beaner, spik, honkie, cracker, mick, fag, etc. The total omission of that word from teaching situations smacks of censorship to me. Teach people about the ignorance and history of the word use, and educate them so they don't resort to name calling. In the hallways of my school, I still hear that word occasionally. It makes me sad to say it, but I do. Mostly I hear African Americans using the word, but I also hear white mouths when they think they are being "cool" talking to their black friend, or from a white mouth when they are engaged in aggressive behavior with a black person. The word I hate the most right now is when my students say something is "gay" when they mean that it is "stupid". I hear that ALL the time. I will not use words to put someone down, but I'm not offended when someone uses them to teach about ignorance.

Posted by: Angie at January 9, 2013 6:42 PM

Samuel L Jackson? He's pretty intense. I would cave. But I would whisper. And cower. And be ashamed.

Good thing I'm not a reporter!

Also, it's not a word I use or hear as it does not have the same cultural importance and significance, though we are aware. I don't even know those other words you wrote. Are they words?

Posted by: Heather at January 9, 2013 11:52 PM

Entertained that this movie is getting cultural attention for Tarantino, and Foxy Brown and Machete (Rodriguez, yes, but I have imagined he and Tarantino talking on the phone late at night with curlers in their hair about different comics they like) never did. Even though both played on the same things as Django.

Posted by: alektra at January 11, 2013 9:18 AM