As a certified social worker LaShawn Williams hears the “N” word plenty. And when she hears it while on the job working with at-risk youth, who use the word among each other, she doesn’t let it pass without at least a brief discussion of its meaning and use.
Salt Lake Community College’s Black Student Union this week brought Williams to speak on and moderate “The ‘N’ Word: An Open Discussion” at the Student Center on the Taylorsville Redwood Campus. She is also an adjunct instructor at the College, teaching social work and African American studies.
“Where did it come from?” Williams asked, trying to prime the pump with a series of questions. “What’s its history? Why are we still talking about it in 2014? We’re in a post-racial society, right? So, shouldn’t this be an era where we’re beyond this kind of a conversation? A lot of the questions being asked are about, ‘How did the word become so acceptable?’ How did it become something where we don’t flinch when we actually hear it? And the answer to that is long and convoluted. … There are questions about, ‘Can we actually reclaim the word?’”
Williams started off the discussion by showing excerpts from the 2004 Todd Larkins documentary “The N Word,” which uses celebrities, including whites and blacks, to talk about the first time they heard the word, the origins and politics of it, its different variations and the use of it in hip-hop music.
Four definitions of the word were discussed in the documentary, starting with one where a white person or other non-African American uses to indicate that a black person is of an inferior caste. The documentary points out that it is used as an “affectionate leveler among African Americans, mainly male ones,” much in the same way Russian males might refer to each other as “mujiks,” which historically was used to refer to a peasant.
Another definition talked about in the film is when the word is used by an African American as a “class designation,” to describe a person of the same race as someone who doesn’t know how to behave. The fourth definition Larkins depicts is one that is “quietly but increasingly prevalent” among non African Americans, whereby the word is once again used as a “leveling” term while implying that the person is “okay” or a good friend.
Williams brought up how there is a divide generationally within the African American culture about who can use the word, how it can be used, why it can be used, when it can be used, or if it should be used. In a discussion that lasted almost two hours, topics swirled around how the word will never go away, what has been or needs to be done to reclaim it and thereby redefine the word, and how the word has and will evolve in its use.
“So, what do you do when you have a word that’s that defined, that diverse?” Williams asked. “How do you treat it? Does anyone stop and say, ‘Okay, so, I’m sorry, which way are you using the word so I know how to respond? … How many of you feel you can comfortably discern between which way a word like the ‘N’ word is being used?”