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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

When N-Word Becomes the In-Word

Guess what? We're going to bury the N-word, just like they did at the NAACP convention in Detroit a couple of weeks ago."

"Really? How are civilized folks supposed to express their simultaneous affection and contempt for black people if you do that?"

"They can just say: 'N-word.' "

"I thought you said you were burying the N-word."

"No, we're burying the word that rhymes with trigger. America should make the switch to a childish sounding euphemism so that nobody's feelings are ever hurt again."

"Sounds like an exercise in semantic sleight-of-hand if you ask me."

"The keepers of the nation's racial conscience have decreed it. Who are you to argue with their collective wisdom?"

"But this is lunacy. The existential reality the word represents is obviously still with us. Only the packaging will change."

"Switching to N-word is a lot like going metric after a lifetime of measuring by inches and miles, but some words are just too offensive to use under any circumstances."

"So, we're supposed to use a two-syllable abstraction that means the same thing?"

"Exactly. Now, I know it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but with a little practice, N-word will eventually flow as naturally as the word it replaces."

"Look, I understand why some people want to bury a hateful word, but wouldn't a coherent analysis of how racism permeates the deepest structures of American life be a better use of everyone's time? Who profits when black people are willfully ignorant about how societal disparities come about? Boycotting one painful word while living in the moral vacuum created by our inability to have an honest discussion about race and class isn't liberating."

"I hope you're not implying that burying the word is some kind of publicity stunt."

"Search your own conscience for the answer to that one. Does the elevation of N-word mean that Michael Richards is free to use it with impunity in his stand-up act?"

"It probably wouldn't be a good idea for anyone from the cast of 'Seinfeld,' or 'Friends' or 'Frasier' use it before it achieves critical mass as a term of endearment among blacks."

"I'm sorry, but I just can't picture a self-respecting, or even a self-loathing, black man ever shouting -- yo, are you my N-word?"

"There you go again -- putting limits on the black man's ability to turn lemons into lemonade. Why you always hatin' on a brother?"

"What? N-word, please!"

This month, 80-year-old Ralph Papitto, chairman of the board of Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, had to resign after it was confirmed he used a racial slur to refer to blacks at a meeting of the board.

Mr. Papitto was complaining about pressure from the university to diversify its all white 16-member board when the racist slur "kind of slipped out."

Old-school guys like Ralph Papitto don't use euphemisms when the original words still work for them. In a racist tirade, the man who donated $7 million to the university's law school, which also bears his name, dropped the original N-bomb to refer to black candidates for the board. Obviously, they haven't gotten around to burying the word in Rhode Island.

Later, a chastened and apologetic Mr. Papitto claimed not to have ever used the word before in his nine decades of life. How likely is that for an old white guy surrounded by other old white guys?

"The first time I heard it was on television and then rap music or something," he told a TV reporter in a transparently ridiculous attempt to assert his racial innocence. All you can do is laugh until it hurts.

Too bad Mr. Papitto didn't refer to the black candidates by the far more acceptable N-word. He wouldn't have had to remove his name from the law school if he had.

To paraphrase Chris Rock, I love black people, but I hate the therapeutic use of the N-word. There's something dishonest about fixating on one word while neglecting the much larger discussion that should accompany it.

While the NAACP was burying a racial slur in Detroit, dozens of black parents across the country were burying children shot down in the streets of major cities by black people.

Instead of mounting fake funerals, the national leadership of the NAACP and every other black organization should attend the real funerals of black children slain in every major American city every day. Seeing this endless parade of caskets might be enough to help us all recover a language that speaks to the urgency of the moment.

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Tony Norman

Tony Norman

Tony Norman is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. He was once the Post-Gazette’s pop music/pop culture critic and appeared as an expert on cultural issues on local radio talk shows and television programs. In 1996, he began writing an award-winning general interest column, which, he says, rejuvenated his enthusiasm for the kind of journalism that makes a difference.

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