A Question of... Offence

In the latest in a series for young people, Steven Campbell-Harris looks at a modern taboo.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’

So goes the childhood saying, but its message is foreign to us today. Words have tremendous power. Think back on your life and you can no doubt recall some that linger in the memory. Taking offense can pain us more than taking a punch. Physical wounds heal sooner.

What words hurt us and why?

We ought to distinguish first between words that merely offend our sense of propriety and those that hurt our feelings. When someone exclaims, ‘This is so fucking annoying, I can’t work this fucking dishwasher!’ we might consider the choice of words crass or uncouth. We don’t feel hurt but might feel some order or decorum has been disturbed.

Words that hurt our feelings generally come in two forms. There are generic swear words used to insult someone like ‘piece of shit,’ ‘son of a bitch,’ and ‘asshole’. And then there are slurs which focus on a specific trait of ours (i. e. race, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, disability etc) to demean or belittle us, e. g. ‘Paki, ‘fag’, ‘Yid’. The intended effect of these slurs is different. Calling someone a ‘piece of shit’ is disrespectful and hurtful, but by itself mostly communicates anger and frustration. The effect of a slur, by contrast, is explicitly to ‘other’ us, to make us feel inferior.

Of all the slurs, the most taboo in the West is probably the N word. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on it exclusively because it is likely the most controversial and most frequently discussed.

Is it ever okay for a white person to say the N word?

There have been some notable cases in recent years of white people being rebuked for saying the N word in public. Are there times where this justified, or are there no exceptions?

An essential distinction at the outset needs to be made between using a word and mentioning it. Using the word means employing it for its original intended purpose, degrading a person and implying their racial inferiority. Mentioning the word, on the other hand, means stepping back and pointing to someone’s use of the word, often to highlight what is problematic or controversial about doing so. Is it okay to mention the word, but not use it?

This distinction has an active recent history. In August of 2019 the Pulitzer-nominated poet Laurie Sheck, a professor at New York State University, was investigated for referring to the word during a discussion about the writer James Baldwin. She claimed that she had only said it to make a point about his choice to use it. By saying the word plainly, she was able to draw more attention to the power of the word than if she had used the sanitised substitute ‘the N word’. Mentioning the word directly, in other words, was justified because it served an educational purpose.

This defence of using the word was also taken on the 29th of July 2020 when, amidst the largest conversation on race relations in decades, a white newswoman on the BBC said the N-word while reporting an alleged racist assault. More than 18,600 official complaints soon followed, and amid the controversy the BBC released a statement saying that the purpose of saying the word was ‘to explain, and report, not just the injuries but, given their alleged extreme nature, the words alleged to have been used.’ The victim’s family, the statement noted, had wanted this language to be ‘seen and understood’ by the wider public.

The argument that the BBC made ought to be clarified. The educational purpose achieved by saying the N word cannot have been to highlight that the attack was racist in nature. Saying 'the N word' would have sufficed for that. Instead, the intention was that the listener should be made to feel uncomfortable, and this would help them to empathise with the victim and understand the gravity of the attack. A similar point could be made of Laurie Sheck’s use of it. She didn’t use the euphemism presumably because she wanted the students to feel some discomfort. Was this important? Or did saying the word cause unnecessary distress without adding anything of educational value?

Interestingly we don’t usually object to the use of the N-word on film (including by white actors). Instead, we think it necessary to serve the story. Perhaps there is an important difference here in our level of preparation. When we see a story unfold on film the word, and therefore its impact, is contextualised. In a news broadcast or a lecture, by contrast, it clashes against the bland formality of its surroundings. Another, maybe more significant, difference between its use on film and in the news is the lack of an effective alternative. Saying ‘the N word’ would clearly be absurd in a film about slavery, but its use in a news report or lecture wouldn’t. Both Laurie Sheck and the BBC had the alternative available, the argument goes, so they should have used it.

Another justification for saying the N word begins with a specific end in mind. While it is still unrealistic to imagine a world soon where it is never said, we might want to drain the word of its power so that it doesn’t have the same effect when it is used. If our goal is to protect people from being deeply hurt by its use, a total ban on white people saying it may be counterproductive. Better for some to mention the word occasionally- in safe settings- so it loses the same power to wound in others. A squeamish attitude which avoids the word at all costs may paradoxically elevate it with an almost magical power, magnifying its impact when used.

What do you think of this argument? Is the complete avoidance of saying the N word- even when our intention is not to offend or harm- a hyper-politically correct taboo, a kind of superstitious thinking? Or does a strict prohibition on saying the word ultimately serve our end goal better than occasional use?

Another justification for saying the N word focuses less on what is said or who says it but who hears it. A few years ago, I was discussing a racist incident with a white friend (I am also white) when I reported that someone had said ‘the N word’. I vividly recall the way he looked at me, surprise mingled with a kind of pitying disgust. He said, ‘I thought you would say the word… to me’ as if I had put up a barrier between us. The thought, only partially expressed, seemed to be this: we both disapprove of using this word, we aren’t racists, no black people are around to be offended, so why are you tiptoeing around it? After all, when someone says the euphemism ‘the N word’ we hear the word itself in our heads. What’s the big deal?

The big deal here, one could argue, is entitlement. Why did he feel uncomfortable that I refused to say the word? Not for some illicit thrill in hearing something taboo, I believe. Rather, because it meant following what seemed an unnecessary restriction. The comedian Chris Rock once said, ‘White people are ticked-off because there’s something they can’t do. That’s all it is. “I’m white, I can do anything in the world. But I can’t say that word.” It’s the only thing in the whole world that the average white man cannot use at his discretion.’

Is this right? If a white person mentions the N word to another white person in judging someone harshly for its use, does it still come from a place of entitlement that is racially problematic?

Can black use of the N word remove its sting?

For Jody D. Armour, a Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, the N word is primarily a black cultural property. While overt use of the slur by white people has declined precipitously the word has since been reappropriated by black people, most notably musicians from NWA to Kendrick Lamar and comedians from Richard Pryor to Dave Chappelle. In an interview on Youtube, he notes ‘the N word is a jagged edged word that can harm, can cut, can wound, but used with reticence and care it can also suture the places where blood flows.’ This suturing effect of the word heavily depends on a sense of irony, which distances the speaker from its painful history. Since only black people, Armour says, can say the word ironically, only black people can use it for healing effect.

However, there are occasions where Armour believes that black people can use the word in a harmful way. In his breakout 1996 special Bring The Pain, Chris Rock controversially distinguishes between ‘two kinds’ of black people, saying ‘I love black people but I hate N*****s.’ Much of the routine consists of him lambasting the latter for their fecklessness while praising the former. In his book ‘Black, Listed,’ Jeffrey Boakye writes approvingly of the bit. In describing the differences to his mostly black audience, Rock plays to a stereotype which his audience understands is not real, Boakye writes. It ‘promotes black empowerment by iterating and reiterating that black people are so much better than n*****s, to the extent that the former don’t even identify with the latter.’

Armour disagrees. He claims that Rock’s distinction breathes life into existing prejudices and reinforces class prejudice against poorer, uneducated black people. Even when used for comic effect, the N word carries associations which can entrench racist attitudes in people regardless of their skin colour. Chris Rock himself later came to reflect on his use of the N word in ‘Bring the Pain’ and publicly committed to never revisiting the routine. He did so, he said, because too many people heard the bit without irony, seeing in it only as tacit support for their racist views. We might then ask: when someone uses the N word ironically, if it is likely to be heard by some without irony is it better to refrain from saying it at all?

Further Reading

The N word: who can say it, who shouldn’t, and why- by Jabari Asim
Black, Listed- by Jeffrey Boakye
N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice, and the Law - by Jody D. Armour


"A Question of…” is a new series for young adult readers brought to you by The Philosophy Foundation. Commissioning editors for the series are Emma Swinn MBE and Peter Worley.

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Steven Campbell-Harris is a Senior Specialist and Trainer with The Philosophy Foundation. In these roles he facilitates philosophical conversations with children of all ages, gives talks on philosophy in schools, and trains philosophy graduates in philosophical enquiry. He has published articles on philosophy and education in Philosophy Now, Teaching Times, and Innovate My School.