These thoughts are from Don Stryker, who will co-host — with LeRhonda Y. Greats — the January session of Continuing Conversations on Race and White Privilege at the Princeton Public Library on Monday, January 6, at 7:30 p.m. All are welcome.

In Defense of a Loaded Word, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Opinion piece in The New York Times, November 24, 2013.

            With additional information from a 2008 article in The Baltimore City Paper.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic and an accomplished writer and journalist, speaks about the “N” word through the world he experienced growing up in West Baltimore. While drawn to the culture of the street, he was pulled back by his family and offered meaningful alternatives to pursue. An avid reader as a youth who wanted more than his neighborhood could offer, Coatesstill experienced the tension of growing up in an environment where, in his words, “to be a black male is to be always at war…” 

The “N” word was a part of the street vocabulary, just as was learning to be “hard” and the need for constant posturing to prop up that hardness. “Violence shapes how you walk and what you say,” Coates reflects, but through the strong influence of his father, Paul Coates, and his oldest brother ‘Big Bill,’ Ta-Nehisi was able to learn the survival skills required to navigate the street without becoming a part of the street or dying in the street. 

Paul Coates, Ta-NeHisi’s father, was a Vietnam vet and a Black Panther who eventually left the BP party to explore other ways of building black community and creating black nationhood parallel to the white world. He was a firm believer in education, a strong proponent of cultural identity and in 1978 he founded Black Classics Press. This is one of the oldest black-owned and run publishers in the United States of works by black authors and books about black history and culture.  Coates’ father was a strong influence on Ta-NeHisi’s developing sense of cultural identity, community and understanding of nationhood. 

Coates’ defense of the “N” word stands in real contrast toother opinions about the word.  Coates suggests that a total ban of the use of the word is impractical and unrealistic. It’s out there, in use and is still potent in many ways.  In Coates’ view, the ways in which whites use the word, or even if they should use it, have to be considered differently from how blacks use it. Coates suggests that…     

            “For some the mere mention of ‘nigger’ conjures up memories of lynchings and      bombings.  But there’s more here — a deep fear of what our use of the word   ‘nigger’            communicates to white people. ‘If you call yourself the n-word,’ said the Rev. Al Sharpton, ‘you can’t get mad when someone treats you like that.’” 

But Coates rejects this as a double standard.  If a white person self-depreciatingly refers to himself as a “redneck,” it doesn’t mean that that white person is expecting to be treated as a “redneck,” or evens considers himself to be a “redneck.”  For a white person, this is indicative of being in a position of privilege, of being able to indulge in self-depreciation without concern for being labeled that way.  “Redneck” is also used by some whites to intentionally distinguish themselves from other whites who they view as gentrified and pretentious, not down to earth country people. Coates argues that blacks should have the same freedom of self-labeling and not have to worry about what white people think.

Coates also argues that banning the “N” word is an example of respectability politics, an attempt to prevent the uttering of verifying stereotypes that could serve to confirm white racist images and beliefs. He suggests that “…the desire to ban the word “nigger” is not anti-racism, it is finishing school.”  He argues “… that words take on meaning from context and relationship…” and the use of the “N” word in the black community is different from the use of the word in the white community. Although it is the same word, it carries a different meaning when it is used in a different context. He notes the difficulty that whites and blacks have with recognizing the importance of the differing contexts.

In Coates’ opinion, that context can make the word violent and offensive when used by whites while signifying a bond of community when used by blacks.    

In this argument, however, I think Coates is not acknowledging that the black community is many communities with varied experiences in different contexts with different relationships. Among these variations can be generational differences, class differences and thedifferences in upbringing as influenced by family, religion and local community.  It is at this point that I feel his argument is relative, reflecting the context he grew up in, but is not necessarily reflective of other contexts.  

Coates does make a strong case explaining the reasons for the survival of the word and for allowing a specific use of the “N” word.  For him it is a reminder of the history of racism in the United States. It serves as a boundary between the black and white experience of living in this country and the cultures produced through those very different experiences.
In Coates’ words…         

            “If you could choose one word to represent the centuries of bondage…and the      totality of white violence that birthed the black race in America, it would be ‘nigger.’           

            “But though we were born in violence, we did not die there.  That such a seemingly hateful word should return as a marker of nationhood and community confounds our very notions of power. ‘Nigger’ is different because it is attached to one of the most vibrant cultures in the Western world.   

            “’Nigger’ is the border, the signpost that reminds us that the old crimes don’t disappear. It tells white people that, for all their guns and all their gold, there will  always be places they can never go.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates:  In Defense of a Loaded Word. Opinion piece in The New York Times, November 24, 2013.   

The Baltimore City Paper, June 4, 2008