Facing the consequences of using the N-word

Story highlights

  • Larry Wilmore sparks debate with N-word at White House Correspondents' Dinner
  • Issac Bailey: Whites decrying why they can't use it are seeking consequence-free use of it

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Warning: This article contains offensive language.

Contrary to what you've heard, there is no double standard concerning the use of the word nigger. White people can -- and have -- used it whenever and wherever they please for at least the past couple of centuries. And during most of that period, it made them stronger, oftentimes (with a few notable exceptions) deepening racial divisions and ratcheting up racial fear in white people's favor in the process.
Everyone with even a cursory understanding of our history knows this. The only question is where the evolution of this word is headed in a society that will soon be majority-minority and the power structure is forced to consider voices it has long ignored.
Words often have multiple meanings and evolve, like symbols do. Remember, the swastika represented "good fortune" and was a symbol of peace and harmony for centuries -- until Adolf Hitler adopted it while murdering 11 million people.
So why the angst over comedian Larry Wilmore's use of "nigger" at the end of his monologue at the White House Correspondents' Dinner to refer to President Barack Obama? (There was a similar uproar when Obama used the word on a podcast last year.) The answer is that a lot of people are not recognizing -- or are refusing to accept -- that reality. And some might be trying to create a double standard that benefits them once again.
White people can speak the word while mouthing a rap by Lil Wayne. I've spoken to groups of interracial college students who say their black and white members use the word playfully on a daily basis. White teachers have taught the word when assigning "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Black comedian Richard Pryor was famous for using the word -- but so was white comedian Lenny Bruce, especially for his "Are there any niggers here tonight?" routine in which he essentially argued that the way to defang the word was by overuse.
Gerry Adams, an Irish politician, used the word in a tweet Sunday to compare the plight of black slaves and that of Irish nationalists. He was reacting to "Django Unchained," a movie about a former black slave seeking revenge on white slave owners in which the N-word is used relentlessly -- a movie produced by Quentin Tarantino, a white man.
The problem has never been whether white people can use the word -- they do. But should they, and when and how? White people decrying why they can't use the word are, in effect, seeking the consequence-free use of it. Bruce and Tarantino used the word and created a backlash, but they were strong enough to take it because they believed their underlying message was that important. That's what grown-ups do -- they are willing to suffer the consequences if they believe their cause is just. Adams, on the other hand, initially defended his use of the word, aiming to point out the parallels between struggles oceans apart, before eventually apologizing, likely because the political consequences seemed too great.
White people need to stop hiding behind the superficial claim that they are barred from using the word -- they aren't -- and try to figure out why it's so important for them to say what Wilmore and Obama did. There are a ton of words I don't use that I hear others use frequently, particularly women who make jokes and use them as terms of endearment toward other women. Every word doesn't have to be under my domain.
All this said, the truth is, black people sometimes take the criticism of the N-word too far, ignoring context and intent, like when a white official in Washington was run out of town for saying that the city needed to be niggardly. He was talking about spending, not black people. Black parents have on occasion taken white teachers to task for even discussing the word, or anything related to it, such as the "nappy hair" uproar in a New York elementary school, or "Huck Finn" in classrooms throughout the country.
Of course, it makes sense to be suspicious of a police officer, such as Mark Fuhrman, who used the word in a particularly derogatory way. The same goes for any person in power who wields that word not to deepen an important conversation, to add historical context to a debate or discussion, to embrace someone as a loved, respected brother (which is how Wilmore used it in reference to Obama) but instead to demean and belittle.
That hasn't changed. What has is that the word no longer has the backing of the hangman's noose, and that the white person who uses it, in any context, is more likely to be harmed by it than his intended target. Whether fair or not, that's the reality in which we live.
Black people had to face literal lynch mobs to reduce the potency of the word during a period in which it was frequently hurled at them in a derogatory way, to re-enslave them in a sense. They don't regret having done that, even if they debate among themselves if the word should be used at all today.
White people now have to ask themselves if it is worth it to suffer whatever consequences might come -- loss of a job or a reputation, not their lives -- to use the word as freely as some black people do.