© 2013 Adam Nielsen

The N-Word and Censorship by Dawrlin Mejia

07_The_S_WordAs part of this year’s annual humanities theme, Censorship Uncovered, on September 12, 2013, Professor Luvell Anderson trekked up to Colby College in Waterville, Maine to provide a lecture called “Monitoring ‘Bad’ Language.” With a focus on the controversial N-word, Professor Anderson discussed the slur’s specialized use rules and why it seems okay for some people to use it and not okay for others, providing thought provoking insight into the censorship of language.

As I entered the lecture hall and sat next to my friend, Julia Lo, a Philosophy professor, Jill Gordon, introduced Anderson. Julia whispered to me, “man, this guy is prolific,” as the professor listed off Anderson’s publications and provided a hefty introduction for the colloquium. Luvell Anderson is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Memphis where he specializes in semantics, ethnic language, and racist humor. Formerly, Anderson was the Alain Locke Postdoctoral Fellow at Pennsylvania State University, and was a graduate student in the Philosophy Department at Rutgers University, where he explored his interests in the areas of philosophy of language and race, and researched racial and ethnic slurs, racist humor, and offensive pictures. He is also a founding member of the Society of Young Black Philosophers and is a musician on the side.  He is currently working on a book about racial language.

As the lecture begins, Anderson starts off by talking about some of his interests and research. He struck a chord when he mentioned that he explores violence through language, and the difference between a pejorative and profanity. As I understand it from the talk, a pejorative, specifically a racial pejorative, incites effects not in polite company, or is meant to express contempt, and in turn belittle, disparage, and abuse someone. On the other hand, profanity is considered impolite or offensive, but doesn’t carry the same moral weight. For pejoratives, he used the examples of “nigger,” “faggot,” and “slut,” in contrast to the expletives “fuck” and “shit.”

Anderson then spoke about the flexibility of language and how some may argue that the use of the N-word aids in taking the sting out of the word, and that in others it could be appropriated in ways that may be permissible. The Boondocks episode, “The S-Word,” which Anderson mentions during the talk, provides a stimulating perspective and introspective look at the use of the N-word, and its various form and uses.

2He also brought up a recent image that circulated through social media and raised eyebrows, including mine.  The article, “Ok, Seriously, Who ARE These People?” by Clutch Magazine jokes, not so jokingly, about the absurdity of this image and how it is not okay to “let this ish fly.” The author of the article states, “The n-word is a vile and despicable slur created by White supremacists to rob Black people of their humanity. It is not empowering. It cannot be reclaimed. No matter how many rappers use it in their rhymes, it will never cease to sting. It may not seem fair or just or equal, but the n-word should be off-limits to EVERYONE,  especially White folks. Got a problem with that? Blame slavery.” During the talk, Anderson pointed out his favorite quote from the article – “If this is an actual shirt worn by this actual woman as she poses with this actual dude, neither one of them ain’t sh*t”.


This talk provided an interesting look into self-censorship and discerning when it is harmful, insensitive, or politically incorrect to utilize a certain word around certain company or whether it should not be used at all. He brought up the difference between a public domain (television, concert hall, cd) and a private domain (at home, on the phone, all-black comedy club), the existence of an in-group (people who use or have appropriated the word) and an out-group, and how these parameters play a role in the flexibility (to some) of the use of the N-word, which brings him to the questions: Are private uses ethically permissible? Are public uses? If so, to who?

Anderson then provided the audience three different views on whether or not the N-word should be used. The first is what he dubbed “The Cosby View,” where the derogatory, racial slur should never be used because it is “the greatest child slavery ever bore,” its utilization points at a lack of respect, and given the history of the word, regardless of intention, it cannot help but bring up its oppressive and hateful connotation.

The second view, or the “Q-Tip” perspective, holds that hip-hop has redefined the word and “turned it into poetry,” it has been reinvested into something positive, and is even used as a term of endearment. There are two goals of this view, to neutralize the word, and to reverse its value and take ownership of the word. Will this view work? I do not think so. It is too murky and provides a lot of gray area.

The third view, or the militant view, asserts that it is inseparable from its original meaning and that it should be used as a cultural tool to remind people of its bad history.

Do any of these views work? Should the N-word be censored for all, or just for some (in this case white people? Is there any domain, public or private, where it is permissible? Is a socially conscious appropriation to subvert the oppressive culture a reasonable route? Is there a difference between growing up with the use of the word as a dialect versus appropriating it? Personally, I believe in freedom of speech and I do not think it is in my position to tell someone what they can and cannot say, however, the n-word is a special case, especially because it was used colloquially and took a different meaning to me and the kids I grew up. Today, I do not say the word, but it was my personal choice. Yet, as we all exited the room, the audience and I murmured about all the questions we were left with.

One Comment

  1. Posted May 12, 2014 at 4:24 pm | #