The Media and the N-Word
Author:Nadra Kareem Nittle
July 19, 2012
One of the quickest ways for celebrities to make headlines is to use the N-word. Gwyneth Paltrow, John Mayer and Laura Schlessinger, aka “Dr. Laura,” have done it, and Paltrow did it most recently. In June, she stirred controversy by tweeting the name of a rap song by Jay-Z and Kanye West that features the derogatory term.
Mainstream media outlets, including ABC News, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News in New York, covered the resulting uproar. Their reports included the context in which Paltrow used the word and the subsequent backlash.
However, cultural critics say the media can make their coverage more comprehensive by discussing the word’s historical significance and consulting a variety of African-Americans on their thoughts about using it.
To improve coverage, the media should report on distinct uses of the N-word in the black community while citing African-Americans’ conflicts about it, says Kerry Lee Riley, an affiliated scholar at the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Normally, it’s portrayed as a hip-hop concept which has shifted into popular consciousness,” Riley says. But the way African-Americans use the term reaches beyond the hip-hop community, he notes. Riley says that the N-word isn’t simply a term of endearment and that blacks have used it when they’re unhappy or competing with one another. Sometimes, blacks apply it as a generic descriptor of black men.
The N-word has various uses in the black community and also opponents and supporters there, Riley says. The media generally depict the word as a term young hip-hoppers embrace and older blacks resent. But Riley says neither group has reached a consensus about it.
Some rappers, for example, refuse to say the word. Well-known hip-hop artist Kid Cudi announced last fall that his new album wouldn’t contain curses or the N-word. While black and music websites covered his move, few headlines about it appeared in mainstream media despite Cudi’s prominence in the hip-hop world.
The media should visit black blogs or examine blacks’ reactions on social networking sites when the next N-word controversy occurs, suggests Andrea Plaid, associate editor of Racialicious, the blog that describes itself as being about the intersection of race and pop culture. Plaid says that’s the best way for the media to capture diverse perspectives about the N-word in black communities.
“There are 40 million black people in the U.S., so there are going to be 40 million different opinions,” Plaid says.
The comments sections of black websites such as Bossip and The Root reveal that many African-Americans are angry that some people in the hip-hop community—Nas, The-Dream and Russell Simmons, to name a few—defended Paltrow after her tweet. This demonstrated a disconnect between hip-hoppers’ reaction and that of blacks in general.
The media, however, almost exclusively included perspectives of black celebrities about the incident rather than those of everyday African-Americans. Plaid says the media should offer a more in-depth portrayal of blacks and whites concerning the N-word.
Typically, the media portray whites as resentful of the notion that the N-word is a term exclusively for blacks. News organizations should also include perspectives of whites, such as antiracism activist Tim Wise, who understands the history of the word and why whites don’t have the privilege of saying it, Plaid says.
She also recommends that the media include opinions of various minority groups on the issue to move the sole focus of discussion on the word away from whether it’s appropriate for whites to use.
As the N-word becomes increasingly commercialized, journalists must take particular care with how they report on it, according to pop culture critic Jawn Murray of AlwaysAList.com, the entertainment and lifestyle website.
“The media should definitely thoroughly research the incident,” Murray says. “We live in a climate that’s very much of a sound-bite nature. They will take a fragment of something and build entire stories around it. Things get misconstrued.”
Murray says it’s important to distinguish between Paltrow using the N-word while referencing a song title and comedian Michael Richards using it to berate African-American hecklers during his 2006 standup performance at a comedy club.
Murray says he doesn’t advocate that whites or blacks recklessly use the N-word but thinks that the media must distinguish between use of the word with malice and use as a result of the slur’s commoditization in pop culture. “We have to be a little more balanced and fair with how we approach stories like this,” he says.
Arguably the media’s biggest mistake regarding the N-word is censoring it, Riley says. He says the media should use the word in its entirety rather than refer to it as the N-word. Many people would take offense if society began referring to the Holocaust as the H-word because doing so would erase its significance, he adds.
“Utilizing the N-word is another example of the media trying to render impotent the power of the word,” he says.
The N-word reduces a racial slur used to dehumanize blacks to a term “that should not be spoken,” Riley says. “Part of our argument is that it has been spoken and it should be spoken. The media needs to stop using the ‘N-word’ and call it what it is.”
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