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'N-Word' the Focus of a Constant Debate : Slurs: The epithet has varying boundaries for blacks and whites.


As epithets go, it's a knife. It doesn't just cut, it cores.

"It's the ultimate way to remind someone you were once property, once chattel," said Eugene Grigsby, UCLA professor and director of the school's Center for AfroAmerican Studies. "To slip back into that terminology is to hurl an insult."

As banter, it is meant for an inner sanctum. "I use it very privately in my conversations with my friends," said Bondie Gambrell, a black businessman and community leader.

And as household words go, no word is more recognizable. You know what the word is and it hasn't even been mentioned yet.


Just seeing it on the page can sting.

Few words are more highly charged. Few words are more chameleon, capable of repulsing one moment and warming a casual gathering of African American friends the next.

And probably no word has so stunned a sophisticated and glib society like the one that came rolling off Mark Fuhrman's tongue dozens of times on scratchy audiotapes now heard round the world. So dark and raw was the former LAPD detective's usage of the word that it was a slap in the face to virtually every listener.

"When whites call [blacks] that, it strikes fear in our hearts and takes us back to a time we don't ever want to see again," said Gambrell, 54.

Yet it's a word that is still the focus of constant debate. People don't even agree on whether it should change meaning depending on the user.

"Let me tell you something," said Gambrell, "there is such a contradiction in how it's used by so many different people, including blacks, that sometimes you cannot come up with a clear concise stance on who should use it and who shouldn't use it and when."

Maybe, as cutting-edge comic Lenny Bruce argued more than 30 years ago, we should just say the word so many times so loudly and so publicly that the word becomes utterly devalued--a limp and boring cliche.

Or maybe we should never ever say the word. An equally audacious comic, Richard Pryor, announced in the 1980s--after years of using the word as a staple of his searing routines--that he would never use it again. The reason: while on a trip through Africa, he never once saw "a nigger," he said.

Or maybe the word should be a tool only blacks can wield. After all, many ethnic groups occasionally use hurtful words within their own circles, turning a historic insult on its head to achieve hard-edged affection.

As increasing numbers of whites adopt the dress, the manner, the music and the slang of black culture, some have become bewildered over why they cannot also appropriate the obviously jocular use of the word as it surfaces in some quarters of black life.

"Blacks call blacks the same name . . . they call each other the 'N-word' and it's OK," a veteran Los Angeles police officer said recently. "If you stop and think about it, what is considered racist?"

But to Rabbi Allen Freehling of the University Synagogue in Brentwood, the word is a universal taboo. Freehling has been privy to conversations with blacks where they bandied the word about.

"I felt very awkward and strange," he said.

"Someone can argue that one African American talking to another can use that word and get away with it. . . . I don't feel we have license to use any word that is pejorative," Freehling said.

Freehling grew up in Miami hearing the word, knowing its power to hurt. And he has seen the dangerous confusion around the word.

Nearly two decades ago, Freehling's high school-age son was working one summer at the synagogue doing maintenance work when he came to his father, angrily demanding that the rabbi fire the synagogue's custodian. Why? his father inquired. "He hit me with a broomstick when I called him a nigger," said the son. His father asked incredulously why his son would use that word. All his black friends at school--classmates and sports teammates--used it, the son explained nonchalantly, and having become close to the black custodian he simply assumed he could too.

"Well, I hope you've learned a lesson," his father told him.

For most people, whether they are black or not, whether they use it or not, the word carries a history of a long and violent denigration.

"If you look at post-slavery, African American males particularly were never called by their proper surnames," Grigsby said. "It was either 'boy' or 'nigger.' So the use of labels to depict African Americans was something other than a way to portray them as proper persons."

The terms of black self-identity have ranged from Negro to black to Afro-American to African American, but the word nigger has remained "the most derogatory thing you could call a black person," Grigsby said.

Dealing with it is difficult. From the moment it entered the O.J. Simpson trial courtroom, people gingerly stepped around it. The "N-word." It was part respectful, part cumbersome, part ridiculously obvious. Because no matter what chord it strikes in a user or listener, it is a word that is pervasive in art and in language.

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