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From white or black, the N-word is not OK

By LZ Granderson, Special to CNN
  • LZ Granderson says he was at a club of mainly white people singing along to hip hop music
  • He was shocked when they all began shouting the n-word along with Kanye West song
  • "What is it with white people and that word?" he asks, but then notes that Kanye brought it up
  • Writer: Word too freighted and hurtful to be tossed around by Dr. Laura or anyone else

Editor's note: LZ Granderson is a senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and, and has contributed to ESPN's Sports Center, Outside the Lines and First Take. He is a 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award for online journalism, and a 2010 and 2008 honoree of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) for column writing.

(CNN) -- I was out roaming the streets of east London with a group of friends back in 2007 when we stumbled across this sweaty hipster club tucked between an old church and a bank. It wasn't a very large space, holding maybe a couple of hundred people, but what it lacked in size was more than made up in the energy coming from the predominantly white, eclectic crowd on the dance floor.

The music was a continuous flow of everything from '80s house music to current hip hop and I had just enough beers in me to join the raucous crowd in singing the words of each song at the top of my lungs. From Inner City's "Big Fun" to House of Pain's "Jump Around," it seemed with each track, the crowd grew louder and louder.

Then Kanye West's "Gold Digger" came on. For those of you who don't remember the chorus, allow me to refresh your memory:

"Now I ain't sayin' she's a gold digger

Video: Is the N-word ever OK?
Video: Dr. Laura critic praises N-word rant

But she ain't messin' with no broke niggas"

I've never sobered up so quickly before in my life. There I was, one of maybe a handful of black people in a crowded, dark room with hundreds of drunk white people yelling the N-word.

Now obviously I never felt I was in any real danger. And even as the crowd repeated the word over and over and over again, not once did I think anyone around me meant anything malicious by it.

Still, I became angry ... I just wasn't sure at whom.

I thought, "What is it with white people and that word?"

But then I also had to ask myself, "What is it with black people and that word?"

After all, at least on that night, Kanye was the one who brought it up.

Last week Dr. Laura Schlessinger used the word repeatedly on her radio show in a discussion with a caller. The knee jerk reaction to her rant is to demand she be fired. That was also the response to Don Imus' on-air racial slur back in 2007, and Rush Limbaugh's racially charged comment in 2003, and of course who can forget Jimmy The Greek for sort of getting the ball rolling in 1988.

I believe Schlessinger and the others deserve the repercussions their actions have drawn, but I am frustrated that as a nation we continue to interpret the censure of such people as progress while ignoring some of the uncomfortable truths nestled inside their racist diatribes. It is in dissecting these uncomfortable truths that we get to the actual social progress, not with the cosmetic firings that make us all feel better for a moment.

For example, I know there is a contingent of black people who claim our usage of the N-word is done so affectionately that's why it's OK for us to use it and not whites.

I don't believe it's OK for anyone to use the word because of its undeniable link to one of the country's most brutal and disgusting periods. It was a word used to intimidate and belittle. Any attempt to alter its meaning through some warped sense of exclusivity is not only misguided, but disrespectful to the blood of both blacks and whites that was spilled in the name of racial equality.

Yes, between friends it could hold a different connotation. But I would argue there is very little affection in Kanye using the word in a song, and that our continual injection of the word into pop culture is not only hypocritical but unintentionally gives white hipsters in London, Sydney, New York or any other city where a song like "Gold Digger" can be heard, permission to say it.

The substantive question, the one that could lead to a better understanding, isn't who is saying the N-word, but why. Now, if a white person said something like that, they could be labeled a racist. Me? Someone out there is calling me an Uncle Tom right now. And it's this sophomoric labeling that keeps us locked in a hamster wheel.

It's hard for me to believe that Schlessinger's remarks were rooted in a genuine yearning to promote honest dialogue about race --more like a belligerent attempt to shock, likely out of her own frustrations. How could a white person who has been in media as long as she has be ignorant of the ramifications of uttering the N-word on air?

But she was right about one thing: Culturally neither blacks nor whites have the courage to talk honestly across color lines. We still act as if "colorblindness" can be achieved without addressing the nuances of race in a country with a complicated history such as ours.

So, politically we coin euphemisms like "inner city" and "real Americans" as if no one knows what's really being said. We draw lines in the sand on topics such as the N-word and we're quick to assign harsh names to anyone who tries to cross that line, because bullying is much easier than listening.

I know, I know, we have a black president, that's got to mean something, right? Yes, it does. But also keep in mind the nation has also seen a dramatic increase in hate group membership and we have a new political movement with racist organizers woven into the early stages of its fabric since the election of that black president. This language isn't helping.

There is still a lot of work to be done and quite frankly the rebuke of Schlessinger does very little in addressing that work. Just as dismissing Imus, Limbaugh et al has done little. Public gaffes like these need to move beyond reactionary name-calling and firings and toward the kind of conversations that can only happen when we remove the muzzle of fear.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.