(Or, at least I try very hard not to, if we’re being honest.)
I refrain from using the “nuclear bomb of racial epithets”, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. This whole topic, of which I walk a tightrope just writing about, brings up the classic question: Who can use the N-word?
The N-word has become ubiquitous in today’s lexicon, not so much as in print (see the word’s results in Google’s Ngram), but certainly in pop culture, and in the occasional self-destructive slip by non-Black, well-meaning or not, politicians, celebrities, athletes, or others who find themselves at the center of a firestorm of backlash. I have little sympathy for these folks, for they should know the destructive power and historical baggage of the word, even if many (i.e. White) have become desensitized to the word. Ignorance is no excuse.
I have recently needed to come up with a concerted stance on the word, prompted by my teenage children, who have undoubtedly heard it outside of the home, and are already questioning its meaning. (Plus, there is a whole genre of hip-hop I want to expose them to!)
I think it’s best to start with a scholarly briefing of the N-word, including its history. Go promptly to Randall Kennedy’s seminal article: “Who Can Say Nigger? And Other Considerations”. Suffice to say, this article changed my thinking. In fact, it hit me with a brick. Dr. Kennedy does not paint a clear path forward to a “yes” or “no” platform. Rather, he gives the reader a history of the word, illustrates its power to dehumanize and destroy, but also legitimizes a case for its use for artistic pursuits (for some, not all people). The responsibility comes back squarely onto the reader to determine his or her own stance.
It should not be surprising that comedians offer us a way to make sense of the word (and a safe place to do so). Try this famous SNL skit on the power of the N-word, from Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor. Or, this more contemporary analysis from Chris Rock.
In the end, I choose to not use the N-word, in print or verbally, because I do not want to perpetuate the use of the word in our language, and I most certainly do not want to unwittingly unleash the destructive, historical power of the word on anyone around me. Nor do I have the credibility to validate its use in artistic expression (I am highly inartistic)–I most certainly don’t want to become this White guy. So, while the N-word can never, and perhaps should never, be eradicated from the English language, I will play my part in not perpetuating it. What will you do?