We need to confront the "N-word" to disarm it. Yes, it is ugly, offensive and vile, and when used to degrade or wound someone or some group it should be roundly condemned.

But by demanding zero tolerance of its use, regardless of context or intent, and by treating it as the ultimate linguistic taboo, we risk investing it with quasi-magical properties and perpetuating its negative power. We need honest dialogue about this troublesome word.

We can't wish it out of existence. Nor should we wish to relegate authors such as Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Harper Lee, not to mention African American authors such as Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, to obscurity.

Words are living things -- they evolve, they wax and wane (consider how innocuous and trite the F-word has become compared to a generation ago). They can be reappropriated (witness "queer" or, for that matter, the dreaded N-word itself, as exhibited in countless rap lyrics). Words can even, if we allow nature to take its course, die.

Ironically, by our scrupulous avoidance, we're providing the N-word with life support.

Len Nosal, Madison

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